If you’ve gazed up at the 60-foot-tall faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved into Mount Rushmore and thought, “That’s it?” then follow the bend around Black Elk Peak.
About 15 miles from the presidential sculpture, the Crazy Horse Memorial pays homage to the Lakota leader who defeated General George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. While the Mount Rushmore carvings were completed in 1941, the Crazy Horse Memorial is an impressive work in progress. Here are 10 important things to know before you visit the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota.
“I will return to you in stone.” — Crazy Horse’s prediction before his death in 1877
1. It Honors A Sioux Indian Chief
With fair skin and curly brown hair, Tasunke Witco stood out among the Lakota people. The gifted warrior took the name Crazy Horse and used his well-honed skills to fend off European Americans as they constructed homes and established farms on his ancestral lands, threatening his people’s way of life. From the Fetterman Massacre to the Battle of Little Bighorn, if a successful surprise attack embarrassed the U.S. military, chances are Crazy Horse was leading the charge.
“We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home. You had yours. We did not interfere with you. We do not want your civilization!” — Crazy Horse
Pro Tip: When you visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, you may hear the leader referred to as both a Lakota and a Sioux. As a Native American friend explained it to me, the Sioux Indians are an alliance of three distinct groups: the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota.
2. The Memorial Is Gigantic
To say the Crazy Horse Memorial is huge is an understatement. When the 563-foot-tall, 641-foot-long monument is completed, it will set the world record for the largest mountain carving. To put those figures into context, the Crazy Horse Memorial will stand eight feet taller than the Washington Monument and be nearly 10 times larger than Mount Rushmore. And the Lakota warrior’s arm, parallel to the horizon as it points out the land of his people, is nearly as long as an American football field.
Fun Fact: Often called the Fifth Face on Mount Rushmore, Ben Black Elk, who was related to Crazy Horse, was one of the most photographed Native Americans in the world. With the four white men carved into the Six Grandfathers Mountain as a backdrop, Ben Black Elk posed for thousands of photographs a day and used his interaction with tourists and his growing celebrity to share Lakota traditions and teach Native American history to children.
3. A Self-Taught Sculptor Designed The Crazy Horse Memorial
Orphaned as an infant and raised by foster parents who predominantly treated the young lad as free labor, Korczak Ziolkowski knew how to work hard. Although he graduated from Rindge Technical School, Korczak was predominantly educated in the school of hard knocks. As a teen, he labored in the heavy construction industry and then became an apprentice carpenter in Boston’s shipyards. Outside of work, Ziolkowski studied the Old Masters and applied his self-taught design skills to plaster and clay.
After winning the top prize at the 1939 New York World’s Fair for his marble sculpture, Ziolkowski was invited to spend the summer of 1939 working alongside Gutzon Borglum as he carved the presidents on Mount Rushmore. But his hands-on experience sculpting mountains was limited to less than three weeks when Ziolkowski had a falling out with Borglum’s son and left the project.
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” — Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear in a letter to Ziolkowski
4. Ziolkowski Dedicated His Life To The Crazy Horse Memorial
Along with 156,000 other brave members of the Greatest Generation, Ziolkowski landed on the beaches of Normandy during World War II. The talented World War II veteran was highly sought after to design war memorials across Europe, but Ziolkowski chose instead to dedicate the rest of his life to the Crazy Horse Memorial.
“By carving Crazy Horse, if I can give back to the Indian some of his pride and create a means to keep alive his culture and heritage, my life will have been worthwhile.” — Ziolkowski
5. It’s A Family Affair
When Ziolkowski moved to the Black Hills to begin the Crazy Horse Memorial, he was nearly 40 years old. He was joined by a young volunteer named Ruth Ross, and the mountain sculptor’s midlife took a surprisingly delightful turn when he and Ruth married, welcoming five sons and five daughters. Although both Korczak and Ruth have passed away, seven of their ten children (and some of their grandchildren) continue to dedicate their lives to Korczak’s vision.
“His whole life would be wasted if the mountain carving and the humanitarian goals are not completed.” — Ruth Ziolkowski
6. Ziolkowski Has Carved Other Notable Figures From Stone
Honing his craft before dedicating the rest of his life to his larger-than-life Chief Crazy Horse Memorial, Ziolkowski fashioned the likeness of other famous Americans out of stone including Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, President John F. Kennedy, and McDonald’s legend Ray Kroc.
Pro Tip: In the town of Deadwood, about an hour north of the Crazy Horse Memorial, you can see a bust of Wild Bill Hickok carved by Ziolkowski out of Black Hills granite installed near the Wild West legend’s grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery.
7. It’s Being Built Without Federal Funding
From his earliest vision for the Crazy Horse Memorial, Ziolkowski was adamant that it be built by the people (and not the government). As a result, he spent more than 35 years of his life volunteering his time and talent to carve the monument without receiving a salary. He turned down funding offers from the federal government, instead relying on admission fees and generous donations from individuals, civic organizations, and private businesses. (In comparison, Mount Rushmore began with a bill signed by President Coolidge that authorized government matching funds of up to $250,000.)
“We preferred our own way of living. We were no expense to the government. All we wanted was peace and to be left alone.” — Crazy Horse
Visitors making certain charitable donations to the memorial can experience the carving in a truly unique way by taking a ride up the mountain and meeting the Lakota leader face to face.
8. It May Not Be Completed In Your (Or Your Grandchildren’s) Lifetime
As patiently as the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon, a new generation of Ziolkowskis continues to carefully chip away at the massive memorial to Chief Crazy Horse as he gallops bare-chested out of the side of a mountain in the Black Hills. But between the sculpture size and the commitment to not accept federal funds, it’s going to take a while.
Pro Tip: You can watch the mountain continue to be carved into Chief Crazy Horse’s likeness via this live webcam.
9. It’s Illuminated In The Summer
From late May to late September, the Crazy Horse Memorial comes alive each night with the Legends in Light laser show. Bright lights from three of the world’s largest projectors dance across the mountainside as the carving is transformed into a gigantic granite screen detailing the history, culture, and contributions of Native Americans.
If fireballs and pyrotechnic features are more your style, then plan to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial during one of the two annual night blasts, each with special meaning. The June night blast celebrates the birthday of Ruth while also commemorating the Battle of the Little Big Horn. In early September, the second night blast celebrates the birthday of Korczak while honoring the life of Crazy Horse on the anniversary of his death.
10. The Memorial Is Just One Part Of Ziolkowski’s Dream
In addition to the impressive mountain carving of Chief Crazy Horse, Ziolkowski’s dream included two other components. One is the Indian Museum of North America. Incorporated into the Crazy Horse Tourist Center with unfettered views of the granite work of art Ziolkowski began in 1948, the museum displays art and artifacts from over 300 Native American nations. The last component of Ziolkowski’s three-pronged dream is The Indian University of North America and a medical training center for Native Americans.
Fun Fact: The Indian Museum of North America attracts roughly the same number of annual visitors as the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Pro Tip: From Native American museums at the Smithsonian Institution to cliff dwellings in Colorado, you can learn more about Native American heritage at these sites.