CRAZY HORSE’S REVENGE
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The momentum led to the opening of a cathedral-like visitors centre in 2000, with a museum, Native American cultural centre (where local artists come to work), bustling restaurant and state-of-the-art cinema. Crazy Horse is squarely on the western sightseeing circuit, although it still maintains its down-home, family feel, perhaps because seven of Ziolkowski’s children still work full time on the site and 28 of his grandchildren are seasonal waiters in the restaurant.
Although carving is proceeding on the 22-storey-high horse’s head, nobody in the family will discuss when the monolith may be finished.
‘‘ There’s no way to estimate,’’ says Ruth, Ziolkowski’s widow, in her mid70s, when we meet for a lunch of tacos. ‘‘ It would be nothing but a wild guess anyway. We’re not trying to be difficult. We just don’t know.
‘‘ Korczak always said it wasn’t important when it was finished.’’
Later, wearing a hard hat, I visit the worksite, strolling along Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm and drinking in a view that seems to stretch to New York City. The work is overseen by the Ziolkowskis’ eldest son, Casimir, who talks about his father with wry affection. ‘‘ He was one of a kind, that’s for sure,’’ he says with a laugh. ‘‘ We had our fights, like every father and son.’’
Workers are diligently laying dynamite, although they are also using tools that would have been science fiction to Ziolkowski when he was alive: groundpenetrating radar, electronic detonators, precision explosives and 3300C torches to polish the granite. Daughter Monique prefers to plot the carving using a scale model, as her father did in the ’ 50s. She uses plumblines to measure distances, like the ancient Greeks; relying on a computer, she says, ‘‘ feels like cheating’’.
‘‘ Only in America could a man carve a mountain,’’ Ziolkowski once declared, a sentiment that, perhaps unsurprisingly, has not won over all Native Americans. In recent years a group called the Defenders of the Black Hills has argued that the region, which is sacred to the Lakota, should be left alone.
Spokeswoman Charmaine Whiteface says the fact that this new sculpture involves an image of a revered Lakota leader does not make it less of a violation than Mt Rushmore. Work should simply stop on Crazy Horse, she says. ‘‘ Let nature reclaim the mountain.’’
But this is the US and nobody leaves a project half-finished. Today, Crazy Horse is going from strength to strength; there are even two annual festivals that encourage visitors from across the nation to enjoy the Black Hills’ crisp summer nights. The first is on June 26, the anniversary of the battle of Little Bighorn as well as Ruth Ziolkowski’s birthday; the second, on September 6, is Korczak Ziolkowski’s birthday and, according to Lakota sources, the anniversary of Crazy Horse’s early death at Fort Robinson.
On my last night in South Dakota, I visit the September extravaganza, joining a stream of about 3000 picnickers sitting on hillsides beneath the stars. A Technicolor laser show turns the halfcarved mountainside into an enormous cinema screen on which Native American petroglyphs and historic photographs are projected to the sound of music and narration.
Finally, in the darkness, roars go up as 20 consecutive dynamite blasts shoot out along Crazy Horse’s arm, giving a spectacular breath of life to the sculpture.
Driving back to my hotel that night, I see the name of the Lakota’s white enemy, Custer, marked everywhere on the Black Hills. Today he is commemorated in the Custer State Forest, where buffalo have been reintroduced after coming close to extermination. (The US Army funded buffalo hunting to wipe out Native American food supplies.) The largest town in the Black Hills is called Custer. And, bizarrely, white townsfolk have even put the Custer name on a mountainside in large white capital letters, like the famous Hollywood sign. But after the night of celebrations at Crazy Horse, it feels as if the historic balance is at least starting to be redressed.
The easiest way to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial is to fly to Sioux City, South Dakota, and rent a car. There are plenty of moderately priced hotels in the town of Custer. It’s worth spending several days exploring the Black Hills, which have a haunting beauty (they are the oldest mountains in North America). www.crazyhorse.org www.southdakotahotels.org
It’s a blast: Explosions carve the features of Lakota warrior Crazy Horse