In 1948 Korczak Ziolkowski, a Polish-American sculptor, received an interesting new commission. Chief Henry Standing Bear, the leader of the Native American Lakota people had written inviting Ziolkowski to create a monument to Crazy Horse, a famous Oglala Lakota warrior.
In the letter Chief Henry Standing Bear outlined the significance of the structure to the Lakota people saying:
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes too.”
Ziolkowski was intrigued, partly by the scale of the project.
Chief Henry Standing Bear wanted the statue to be carved out of a mountain with the completed structure becoming the world’s largest sculpture.
Ziolkowski had worked on Mt. Rushmore, the monumental sculpture of the heads of four Presidents of the United States, located in the Black Hills region of South Dakota so had some experience on projects of this scale.
He initially wanted to carve the statue in the Wyoming Tetons where the rock was better for sculpting but the Native American leaders insisted that they wanted their creation in the Black Hills area, close to Mt. Rushmore.
The Black Hills region is sacred to the Lakota people and the position of Mt. Rushmore was an affront to a great deal of them. As well as being a memorial and statement of the legacy of the Lakota people they also wanted their statue to be a riposte to Mt. Rushmore.
For that reason they demanded that the sculpture of Crazy Horse be substantially bigger than that of the Presidents.
When completed the Crazy Horse memorial will consist of an image of Crazy Horse on horseback pointing into the distance.
It will be 563 feet high and 641 feet wide. The head alone will be 87 feet high.
The heads of the Presidents at Mt. Rushmore are each 60 feet high.
There is some controversy among the Lakota people on the value and veracity of the project.
Crazy Horse was never photographed and was buried so that his grave would never be found.
The idea of an image of him being fixed to one place has offended some Native American people.
Lame Deer, a Lakota medicine man, spoke out against the project saying:
“The whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape. It is against the spirit of Crazy Horse.”
Ziolkowski defended the work, claiming that it was not supposed to represent a definitive image of Crazy Horse as a man. He said:
“Crazy Horse is being carved not so much as a lineal likeness but more as a memorial to the spirit of Crazy Horse.”
The image of Crazy Horse with his arm extended into the distance is designed to represent a moment where he was asked by a white man about the fate of his people.
The man had mockingly asked the defeated Crazy Horse where his lands were now.
Crazy Horse pointed out in front of the man and replied:
“My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Work began on the sculpture in 1948 and is far from completion.
The project receives no Federal or State support and is reliant on fundraising and private financial support.
Ziolkowski died on October 20th 1982 and left the final instructions for the sculpture with his wife. He told her:
“You must work on the mountain. But go slowly so you do it right...”