In the southwest corner of South Dakota resides the Black Hills, a cool, beautiful site of respite. It is best known for Mt. Rushmore’s gleaming carvings of four presidents as well it should be. But down the road is another monument, much slower in the making, that recognizes a Native American icon – Crazy Horse of the Oglala Lakota tribe, whose tribe promoted the “Lakota Way. On our visit the monument was celebrating its 75th anniversary and there was much to tell.
The vision for the Crazy Horse monument came to Chief Henry Standing Bear, also an Oglala Lakota Sioux, as he watched Mt. Rushmore’s work progressing. In 1937 he convinced Korczak Ziolkowski, a Boston artist, to make this vision a reality. The work is as much about the Ziokowski family as it is about Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse is known as a focused, fierce, independent warrior who led an array of Indian tribes against an arrogant but widely recognized General George Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876. In this battle, the tribes strategically caught the American troops by surprise by attacking on both sides and trapping Custer in the middle. Crazy Horse is also revered for his refusal to sign any treaties with the United States as he tried desperately to retain the Black Hills that was promised to his tribes.
Without any photo of Crazy Horse, the monument had to be a composite of the Sioux tribe’s leaders. Begun with a single blast on June 3rd, 1948, progress has been slow due to several factors. The initial work was directed by the Ziolkowski family of husband, wife and ten children. Financing depended on individuals, tribes and foundations. No government assistance was available. The rock was found to be unstable in areas, causing changes in the design. But the dedication never wavered. Even after the death of Mr. and Mrs. Ziokowski, their family remained involved and some sit on the board of the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation Board.
As we drove up the four-lane boulevard, we knew something special was happening. Cars were parked everywhere with men and women on horseback directing traffic. The ticket booth attendant explained the presence of a Volkmarch that drew in thousands from around the country to participate in a most unusual walk. The Volksmarch Association monitors various sites for their walks and encourages all walkers to join. On most days the Monument can only be seen from below. But on this special day, the walkers could climb to the leveled-out area allowing a face-to-face encounter with Crazy Horse’s eighty seven foot tall profile – 27 feet taller than those of Mt. Rushmore. We arrived too late to participate but were impressed with the age range and commitment of the participants. For many it is an annual family outing.
In addition to the distant Monument, the Foundation campus included an expected restaurant and gift shop. But the Foundation has pursued much more – an impressive collection of original Native American Art, a replica of Crazy Horse’s teepee, an historical museum detailing the work on the Monument to the present, and a pile of rocks from the blasting that is free to any takers.
On the second day of the anniversary celebration, many Native American dancers performed. The finished hand was revealed at a ceremony attended by several tribal chiefs and there was a series of lectures of how the Foundation was carrying out the mission of the Memorial to protect and preserve the history, culture and living heritage of North American Indians. Most impressive was the idea of the Indian University of North America. While not a fully accredited school, it does provide some academic programs, extension classes, scholarships, and on-site college Resource Fair. It hopes to promote the study and use of natural plants and herbs for healing.
More than once, I heard speakers talk of the “Lakota Way” which is an acceptance of others, striving for unity and an encouragement of inquiry. After a long day at the event, I sat next to a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe who resided at the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation. They had brought their school’s new teachers from the Philippines to introduce them to the tribe’s history. We chatted and I began asking more about life on the reservation. Concerned about overstepping my bounds, I asked if my questions were too personal. She laughed easily and said, “Oh, no. That is the Lakota Way. How can we get to know each other unless we ask questions.”
Our country could use the “Lakota Way” today. We need to know each other, respect our differences, and yet strive for unity. A personal visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial is a place to start that journey.