Crazy Horse’s revenge
The world’s largest sculpture is slowly rising in the hills of South Dakota, reports Tony Perrottet
‘ 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.
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