Crazy Horse’s re­venge

The world’s largest sculp­ture is slowly ris­ing in the hills of South Dakota, re­ports Tony Per­rot­tet

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

‘ F IRE in the hole! Fire in the hole! Fire in the hole!’’ As the voice rings out from a loud­speaker, we vis­i­tors to a cul­tural cen­tre in the idyllic Black Hills of South Dakota fall silent and fo­cus our eyes on a gran­ite moun­tain­side. Against the pierc­ingly blue west­ern sky, I can clearly make out the enor­mous head and torso of a Lakota war­rior on horse­back, his right hand point­ing force­fully to­wards the hori­zon.

Then a dy­na­mite blast shat­ters the si­lence, send­ing a shower of gran­ite boul­ders thun­der­ing to earth. The charge, one of two or three ev­ery week in sum­mer, barely makes a dent in the neck of the war­rior’s horse. But an­other blow has been struck in the cre­ation of the world’s largest, and strangest, sculp­ture.

‘‘ It’s been a work in progress for about 60 years,’’ a tourist from San Fran­cisco mut­ters, un­sure whether to be amazed or be­mused. ‘‘ Only an­other 60 to go.’’

When it is fin­ished, this cor­ner of the Amer­i­can Old West will be graced with a 171m-high sculp­ture of the most suc­cess­ful Na­tive Amer­i­can leader in his­tory: Crazy Horse, the man who de­feated Ge­orge Arm­strong Custer at the Bat­tle of Lit­tle Bighorn in 1876. It will de­pict the mo­ment af­ter Crazy Horse had sur­ren­dered to US troops in 1877 and was asked mock­ingly by a sol­dier what had be­come of his home­lands.

‘‘ My lands are where my dead lie buried,’’ he re­port­edly replied. ( He was bay­o­neted in a scuf­fle at Fort Robin­son, Ne­braska, soon af­ter; most Na­tive Amer­i­cans be­lieve it was a planned mur­der.)

It is no ac­ci­dent that Crazy Horse is ris­ing only 25km from white Amer­ica’s most fa­mous pa­tri­otic sculp­ture, Mt Rush­more, de­pict­ing the faces of four US pres­i­dents, or that Crazy Horse is go­ing to be way, way big­ger. From the start, this im­age was planned to be a po­lit­i­cal coun­ter­part to Rush­more and to over­shadow it.

The scale of this west­ern colos­sus is mind-bog­gling. On com­ple­tion, it will be the world’s largest sculp­ture, dwarf­ing the Great Pyra­mid of Giza and the Statue of Lib­erty. Rush­more’s pres­i­dents will fit inside Crazy Horse’s 26.6m-high head. The im­age will in­clude a gi­ant tablet bear­ing a poem about Na­tive Amer­i­can his­tory carved in 1m-high let­ters. The site al­ready has a sprawl­ing cul­tural cen­tre at its base, at­tract­ing one mil­lion vis­i­tors a year. (Rush­more scores three mil­lion.) And there are plans for a univer­sity and med­i­cal train­ing cen­tre for Na­tive Amer­i­cans to be built as part of the com­plex.

As they say out west: If you’re go­ing to dream, you may as well dream big.

Suit­ably, the story of the Crazy Horse me­mo­rial is a true west­ern epic. It was con­ceived in the late 1930s by Chief Henry Stand­ing Bear of the Brule band of Lakota who, like all Na­tive Amer­i­cans, re­garded the cre­ation of Mt Rush­more in the sa­cred Black Hills as a pointed in­sult. The gor­geous moun­tain re­gion was guar­an­teed to the Lakota by an 1859 treaty that Congress broke once gold was dis­cov­ered in the area; Custer led the first ex­pe­di­tion into the re­gion in 1874, a year be­fore he and his men were cor­nered by the Lakota at Lit­tle Bighorn, Mon­tana. Gold rush towns quickly fol­lowed, the most fa­mous of which was Dead­wood.

As Rush­more neared com­ple­tion, Stand­ing Bear de­cided he wanted to show the world that ‘‘ the red man has great he­roes, too’’. So the chief in­vited a Bos­ton sculp­tor who had once worked in the area, a young Pol­ish-Amer­i­can named Kor­czak Zi­olkowski, to un­der­take a sculp­ture of Crazy Horse. Zi­olkowski was an ide­al­is­tic war vet­eran with movie-star looks. Fresh from fight­ing in Europe, he was cast­ing around for a project that evoked the his­tory of the Amer­i­can west and was un­daunted by any plan, no mat­ter how in­sanely am­bi­tious. In 1948, Zi­olkowski leased a vast chunk of the Black Hills and started work on the mono­lith, declar­ing: ‘‘ Ev­ery man has his moun­tain. I’m carv­ing mine.’’

By the late 1970s, Zi­olkowski was still slav­ing away; he had be­come a lo­cal fix­ture in the Black Hills, wan­der­ing the land­scape with a huge white beard and broad­rimmed hat, like a lat­ter-day Walt Whit­man. By then he was as­sisted in his labours by his wife, Ruth, and brood of 10 chil­dren. The artist knew that Gut­zon Bor­glum, the sculp­tor of Mt Rush­more, had wasted years wran­gling with bu­reau­crats to ar­range fund­ing. So Zi­olkowski re­fused to let any of­fi­cials be­come in­volved in the project, twice re­ject­ing $US10 mil­lion grants of fed­eral aid. In­stead, he funded the project with private do­na­tions and the con­tri­bu­tions of vis­i­tors.

Of course, this in­de­pen­dent stance meant that progress was slow. When Zi­olkowski died in 1982, the sculp­ture was only a vague out­line; many lo­cals as­sumed it would be aban­doned. But Zi­olkowski’s fam­ily ral­lied to con­tinue work on the moun­tain. In 1998, Crazy Horse’s com­pleted face was un­veiled. Overnight, a chimeri­cal project was given a dis­tinct re­al­ity for the pub­lic, bring­ing streams of en­thu­si­as­tic tourists, all ev­i­dently ea­ger to learn more about Na­tive Amer­i­can his­tory.

Pic­ture: Tony Per­rot­tet

Mind-bog­gling colos­sus: The model of the Crazy Horse mon­u­ment and the full-scale ver­sion slowly tak­ing shape be­hind it; the un­fin­ished 171m-high sculp­ture, which is ded­i­cated to his­tory’s most suc­cess­ful Na­tive Amer­i­can leader, dwarfs Mt Rush­more

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