The street corners of downtown Rapid City, South Dakota, the gateway to the Black Hills and the self-proclaimed “most patriotic city in America,” are populated by bronze statues of all the former Presidents of the United States, each just eerily shy of life-size. On the corner of Mount Rushmore Road and Main Street, a diminutive Andrew Jackson scowls and crosses his arms; on Ninth and Main, a shoulder-high Teddy Roosevelt strikes an impressive pose, holding a petite sword.
As one drives farther into the Black Hills—a region considered sacred by its original residents, who were displaced by settlers, loggers, and gold miners—the roadside attractions offer a vision of American history that grows only more uncanny. Western expansion and settler colonialism join in a jolly, jumbled fantasia: visitors can tour a mine and pan for gold, visit Cowboy Gulch and a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall (“Shoot a musket! Exit here!”), and stop by the National Presidential Wax Museum, which sells a tank top featuring a buff Abraham Lincoln above the slogan “Abolish Sleevery.” In a town named for George Armstrong Custer, an Army officer known for using Native women and children as human shields, tourist shops sell a T-shirt that shows Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Geronimo, and Red Cloud and labels them “The Original Founding Fathers,” and also one that reads, in star-spangled letters, “Welcome to America Now Speak English.”
The source from which so much strange Americana flows is Mt. Rushmore, which, with the stately columns and the Avenue of Flags leading up to it, seems to leave the historical mess behind. But perhaps we get that feeling only because we’ve grown accustomed to the idea of it: a monument to patriotism, conceived as a colossal symbol of dominion over nature, sculpted by a man who had worked with the Ku Klux Klan, and composed of the heads of Presidents who had policies to exterminate the people into whose land the carving was dynamited.
Past Mt. Rushmore is another mountain, and another memorial. This one is much larger: the Presidents’ heads, if they were stacked one on top of the other, would reach a little more than halfway up it. After seventy-one years of work, it is far from finished. All that has emerged from Thunderhead Mountain is an enormous face—a man of stone, surveying the world before him with a slight frown and a furrowed brow.
Decades from now, if and when the sculpture is completed, the man will be sitting astride a horse with a flowing mane, his left arm extended in front of him, pointing. The scale will be mind-boggling: an over-all height nearly four times that of the Statue of Liberty; the arm long enough to accommodate a line of semi trucks; the horse’s ears the size of school buses, its nostrils carved twenty-five feet around and nine feet deep. It will be the largest sculpture in the history of the world. Yet, to some of the people it is meant to honor, the giant emerging from the rock is not a memorial but an indignity, the biggest and strangest and crassest historical irony in a region, and a nation, that is full of them.
The monument is meant to depict Tasunke Witko—best known as Crazy Horse—the Oglala Lakota warrior famous for his role in the resounding defeat of Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and for his refusal to accept, even in the face of violence and tactical starvation, the American government’s efforts to confine his people on reservations. He is a beloved symbol for the Lakota today because “he never conceded to the white man,” Tatewin Means, who runs a community-development corporation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, about a hundred miles from the monument, explained to me. “He lived a life that was devoted to protecting our people.” (“Sioux” originated from a word that was applied by outsiders—it might have meant “snake”—and many people prefer the names of the more specific nations: Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota, each of which is further divided into bands, such as the Oglala Lakota and the Mnicoujou Lakota.) There are many other famous Lakota leaders from Crazy Horse’s era, including Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Elk, Touch the Clouds, and Old Chief Smoke. But when, in 1939, a Lakota elder named Henry Standing Bear wrote to Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor who had worked briefly on Mt. Rushmore, to say that there ought to be a memorial in response to Rushmore—something that would show the white world “that the red man had great heroes, too”—Crazy Horse was the obvious subject.
Ziolkowski, a self-taught artist who was raised by an Irish boxer in Boston after both his parents died in a boating accident, came to Standing Bear’s attention after winning a sculpting prize at the World’s Fair in New York. He moved to South Dakota in 1947, and began acquiring land through purchases and swaps. A year later, he dedicated the memorial with an inaugural explosion. “I want to right a little bit of the wrong that they did to these people,” he said.
In the early days, Ziolkowski had little money, a faulty old compressor, and a rickety, seven-hundred-and-forty-one-step wooden staircase built to access the mountainside. His first marriage dissolved, apparently because his wife didn’t appreciate his single-minded focus on the mountain, and in 1950 he married Ruth Ross, a volunteer at the site who was eighteen years his junior, on Thanksgiving Day—supposedly so that the wedding wouldn’t require a day off work. Ruth told the press that Korczak had informed her that the mountain would come first, she second, and their children third. “You can see why we had ten children,” Ziolkowski once said. “The boys were necessary for working on the mountain, and the girls were needed to help with the visitors.”
Ziolkowski, who liked to call himself “a storyteller in stone,” sometimes seemed to be crafting his own legend, too, posing in a prospector’s hat and giving dramatic statements to the media. He made models for a university campus and an expansive medical-training center that he planned to build, to benefit Native Americans. “Of course I’m egotistical!” he told “60 Minutes,” a few decades into the venture. “All my life I’ve wanted to do something so much greater than I could ever possibly be.” In 1951, he estimated that the project would take thirty years to complete. By the time of his death, in 1982, there was no sign of the university or the medical center, and the sculpture was still just scarred, amorphous rock. Ziolkowski had, however, built his own impressive tomb, at the base of the mountain. On a huge steel plate, he cut the words
After Korczak’s death, Ruth Ziolkowski decided to focus on finishing the sculpture’s face, which was completed in 1998; it is still the only finished part of the monument. The unveiling ceremony prompted a wave of media attention, a visit from President Bill Clinton, and a fund-raising drive. Most of the Ziolkowski children, when they became adults, left to pursue other interests, but eventually returned to draw salaries at the mountain. Some have worked on the carving and others have concentrated on the tourism infrastructure that has developed around it—both of which, over the decades, have
Every year, well over a million people visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, a name almost always followed, on brochures and signage, by the symbol ®. They pay an entrance fee (currently thirty dollars per car), plus a little extra for a short bus ride to the base of the mountain, where the photo opportunities are better, and a lot extra (a mandatory donation of a hundred and twenty-five dollars) to visit the top. They buy fry bread and buffalo meat in the restaurant, and T-shirts and rabbit furs and tepee-building kits and commemorative hard hats in the gift shop, and watch a twenty-two-minute orientation film in which members of the Lakota community praise the memorial and the Ziolkowski family. On special occasions—such as a combined commemoration of the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Ruth Ziolkowski’s birthday, in June—they can watch what are referred to as Night Blasts: long series of celebratory explosions on the mountain. They are handed brochures explaining that the money they spend at the memorial benefits Native American causes. “The purpose here—it’s a great purpose, it’s a noble purpose,” Jadwiga Ziolkowski, the fourth Ziolkowski child, now sixty-seven and one of the memorial’s C.E.O.s, told me. “It’s just a humanitarian project all the way around.”
There are many Lakota who praise the memorial. Charles (Bamm) Brewer, who organizes an annual tribute to Crazy Horse on the Pine Ridge Reservation, joked that his only problem with the carving is that “they didn’t make it big enough—he was a bigger man than that to our people!” I spoke with one Oglala who had named her son for Korczak, and others who had scattered family members’ ashes atop the carving. Some are grateful that the face offers an unmissable reminder of the frequently ignored Native history of the hills, and a counterpoint to the four white faces on Mt. Rushmore. “It’s the one large carving that they can’t tear down,” Amber Two Bulls, a twenty-six-year-old Lakota woman, told me.
But others argue that a mountain-size sculpture is a singularly ill-chosen tribute. When Crazy Horse was alive, he was known for his humility, which is considered a key virtue in Lakota culture. He never dressed elaborately or allowed his picture to be taken. (He is said to have responded, “Would you steal my shadow, too?”) Before he died, he asked his family to bury him in an unmarked grave.
There’s also the problem of the location. The Black Hills are known, in the Lakota language, as He Sapa or Paha Sapa—names that are sometimes translated as “the heart of everything that is.” A ninety-nine-year-old elder in the Sicongu Rosebud Sioux Tribe named Marie Brush Breaker-Randall told me that the mountains are “the foundation of the Lakota Nation.” In Lakota stories, people lived beneath them while the world was created. Nick Tilsen, an Oglala who runs an activism collective in Rapid City, told me that Crazy Horse was “a man who fought his entire life” to protect the Black Hills. “To literally blow up a mountain on these sacred lands feels like a massive insult to what he actually stood for,” he said. In 2001, the Lakota activist Russell Means likened the project to “carving up the mountain of Zion.” Charmaine White Face, a spokesperson for the Sioux Nation Treaty Council, called the memorial a disgrace. “Many, many of us, especially those of us who are more traditional, totally abhor it,” she told me. “It’s a sacrilege. It’s wrong.”
Sometime around 1840, a boy known as Curly, or Light Hair, was born to an Oglala shaman and a Mnicoujou woman named Rattling Blanket Woman. He learned to ride his horse great distances, hunting herds of buffalo across vast plains. As a young man, Curly had a vision enjoining him to be humble: to dress simply, to keep nothing for himself, and to put the needs of the tribe, especially of its most vulnerable members, before his own. He was known for wearing only a feather, never a full bonnet; for not keeping scalps as tokens of victory in battles; and for being honored by the elders as a shirt-wearer, a designated role model who followed a strict code of conduct. (He later lost the honor, after a dispute involving a woman who left her husband to be with him.) His father passed on his own name: Tasunke Witko, or His Horse Is Wild.
White settlers were already moving through the area, and their government was building forts and sending soldiers, prompting skirmishes over land and sovereignty that would eventually erupt into open war. In 1854, when Curly was around fourteen, he witnessed the killing of a diplomatic leader named Conquering Bear, in a disagreement about a cow. The following year, he may also have witnessed the capture and killing of dozens of women and children by U.S. Army soldiers, in what is euphemistically known as the Battle of Ash Hollow. (Much of what we know about Crazy Horse’s life comes from oral histories and winter counts, pictorial narratives recorded on hides.) In 1866, when Captain William Fetterman, who was said to have boasted, “Give me eighty men and I can ride through the whole Sioux nation,” attempted to do just that, Crazy Horse served as a decoy, allowing a confederation of Lakota, Arapaho, and Cheyenne warriors to kill all eighty-one men under Fetterman’s command. He continued to build a reputation for bravery and leadership; it was sometimes said that bullets did not touch him.
The U.S. government, knowing that it couldn’t vanquish the powerful tribes of the northern plains, instead signed treaties with them. But it was also playing a waiting game. Buffalo, once plentiful, were being overhunted by white settlers, and their numbers were declining. Major General Philip Sheridan, a Civil War veteran tasked with driving Plains tribes onto reservations, cheered their extermination, writing that the best strategy for dealing with the tribes was to “make them poor by the destruction of their stock, and then settle them on the lands allotted to them.” (An Army colonel was more succinct: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”)
In 1868, the United States promised that the Black Hills, as well as other regions of what are now North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Colorado, would be “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the Sioux Nation. But, just six years later, the government sent Custer and the Seventh Cavalry into the Black Hills in search of gold, setting off a summer of battles, in 1876, in which Crazy Horse and his warriors helped win dramatic victories at both Rosebud and the Little Bighorn.
But the larger war was already lost. To survive, Red Cloud and Spotted Elk moved their people onto government reservations; Sitting Bull fled to Canada. In 1877, after a hard, hungry winter, Crazy Horse led nine hundred of his followers to a reservation near Fort Robinson, in Nebraska, and surrendered his weapons. Five months later, he was arrested, possibly misunderstood to have said something threatening, and fatally stabbed in the back by a military policeman. He was only about thirty-seven years old, yet he had seen the world of his childhood—a powerful and independent people living amid teeming herds of buffalo—all but disappear.
That same year, the United States reneged on the 1868 treaty for the second time, officially and unilaterally claiming the Black Hills. More and more Native Americans, struggling to survive on the denuded plains, moved to reservations. In 1890, hundreds of Lakota, mostly women and children, were killed by the Army near a creek called Wounded Knee—where Crazy Horse’s parents were said to have buried his body—as they travelled to the town of Pine Ridge. Twenty of the soldiers involved received the Medal of Honor for their actions. Years later, the holy man Black Elk said, “I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there.”
In 1975, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims wrote, of the theft of the Black Hills, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.” In 1980, the Supreme Court agreed, ruling that the Sioux should receive compensation for their lost land. The tribes replied that what they wanted was the hills themselves; taking money for something sacred was unimaginable. The funds ordered by the Supreme Court went into a trust, whose value today, with accrued interest, exceeds $1.3 billion. It remains untouched.
On a bright June day, the parking lot of the Crazy Horse Memorial was packed with cars and R.V.s, their license plates—California, Missouri, Florida, Vermont—advertising the great American road trip. The front door of the visitors’ center, like the brochures handed out at the gate, was emblazoned with the memorial’s slogan: “Never Forget Your Dreams® —Korczak Ziolkowski.” On an outdoor patio, beside a scale model of Ziolkowski’s planned sculpture, tourists took their own version of a popular photo: the idealized image in front, and the unfinished reality in the distance behind it.