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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Sculpted Hills of South Dakota

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: My wife and I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial 41 years after it was begun. Twenty-three years later it remains a work in progress, still supervised by the sculptor’s widow, still refusing government funds. This piece was written September 8, 1989.


FIFTY-THREE YEARS AGO, Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum suggested that he had another project in mind after the carving of the presidents was finished: “The lone face of an Indian on some nearby mountain.”

Crazy Horse Memorial
with scale model in foreground.
Typical of Borglum, it was an idea that flew in the face of practical planning. Work on Rushmore, a project conceived in 1923, was by then way behind schedule. The death of Borglum in 1941 all but ended the still-unfinished project; not even a grand monument can compete for funds with a World War.

Enough was completed to give Mount Rushmore an inspiring character and, despite an occasional embarrassment like the hilarious hanging-from-Washington's-nose finale of Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, it’s a source of South Dakota pride.

But where tourists travel, money is to be made. While the Mount Rushmore restaurant and gift shop are mild by Eastern standards (the ubiquitous bad wax museum is a few miles distant), there is an aspect of silliness. Everything is presidents-related, which is fine, but the connections are often thinly drawn.

T-shirts can be tied in with any subject by appropriate lettering; the same is true of ashtrays and dinner plates. But who determined that a “Lincoln” breakfast should include bacon and scrambled eggs, while a “Jefferson” should be a plate of French toast?

No unpatriotic sentiment is intended. Rushmore will always be a breathtaking sight. But the greatest irony about the project, one that Borglum appreciated, is that the tribute is carved out of stone wrenched from the native residents in aggressive acts condoned by those same presidents depicted.

In 1939, Borglum briefly took as an assistant an award-winning sculptor from Connecticut. Korczak Ziolkowski was a self-taught artist who captured astonishing likenesses of his favorite musicians. Paderewski, Schnabel and Enesco were among his early subjects. A group of Sioux Indian chiefs already had decided that they wanted to compete with the Rushmore project and wrote to Korczak (he’s known almost always by first name only) that they “would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.”

The chiefs chose Crazy Horse as subject because he best represents the integrity of the Indians and their betrayal by the whites. South Dakota’s Black Hills, a sacred Sioux land, was deeded to the tribe by Presidential decree in 1868, a treaty quickly negated when gold fever changed the economics of such an arrangement.

Borglum insisted that Korczak would only be wasting his talent working on the Rushmore faces and didn’t hire him back. But the younger sculptor returned to Connecticut fired with enthusiasm for the Sioux project, and spent the next few years studying the Indians and working to acquire the Black Hills land needed for a sculpture of Crazy Horse, which was begun in 1948.

You’ll find it a few miles beyond Mount Rushmore. A long driveway takes you up to the visitor’s center. Unlike Rushmore, you’re asked for a small entrance fee. Unlike Rushmore, the Crazy Horse carving is funded only from private donations, and Korczak liked to boast about twice turning down the offer of ten million dollars in Federal assistance funds. Promised an “iron-clad contract” by a Secretary of the Interior, Korczak reminded him of the iron-clad contracts made with the Indians as they were ritualistically destroyed.

Korczak died in 1982, his mountain sculpture bearing little likeness to its subject. Over eight million tons of rock have been removed, and painted images show where the Indian and his horse will be carved (what looks like a few brushstrokes from the observation deck, a mile away, took 176 gallons). A 1/34th scale model on the deck gives a finished look at the figure.

Crazy Horse is rendered from the waist up, hair and headdress sweeping back as he gazes over the mane of his steed. His outstretched left arm points over the hills. The horse he rides is rearing slightly, a foreleg bent. When finished, the sculpture will be nearly 600 feet high, taller even than the Washington Monument, ten times larger than the heads on Mount Rushmore. Korczak liked to observe that a five-room house could be built in each of the horse’s nostrils.

The legacy is carried forth by the sculptor’s family. His widow and ten children administer the project. No completion date is suggested. Nor should there be one: it’s an Indian custom to see as much value in process as in accomplishment.

As work continued through the decades, Korczak and his family built a succession of structures for housing and visitor accommodations. There is now a large Indian museum with changing exhibits. The work of local craftspeople is on sale. The snack bar offers conventional refreshments.

This is where the most impressive difference between Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Mountain exists: style of presentation. Borglum, who was treated by the Rushmore-mongers and government people as hired help, is gone and his noble mountain has become his unfinished tomb (although, at his wish, he was buried in California). The mountain is made more static by the visitor-center collections of presidential spoons and pennants. As a Federally-funded project, it has the soulless feel of a Federal institution.

Korczak was considered by many to be mad for turning down the money, but his monument, unformed as it is, lives even after his death. The museum may be the most viable tribute to Native Americans in the country, and, if Korczak’s grand scheme can be followed, that tribute will increase.

The white man’s most enduring sculpture, the highway, now winds through the Black Hills, bringing visitors in to its few attractions and then out again quickly. It’s not a hospitable area. Now that the settlers have explored and mined the place, people seem content to leave it alone again. Korczak’s Crazy Horse and Borglum’s four presidents will face off one another in a granite stalemate for a long time to come.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, Oct. 7, 1989

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