American Impressions, Chapter 4: South Dakota
Looking for Crazy Horse
The car radio was randomly set to the signal of its choice as I was approaching Rapid City. Garth Brooks sang “The Dance,” Pirates of the Mississippi sang something else, then the announcer said it was time to join the Lakota Sioux tribal council that had just begun. What followed for the next several hours was the Polk County Commission’s equivalent of a weekly meeting, but instead of names like Neil Combee and Janet Shearer, council members had names out of “Dances with Wolves.” And instead of discussing the problems of managing too-rapid growth in Loughman or enraging traffic on Pipkin Road, they agonized over the reservation’s economic depression.
As I drove up toward the Black Hills later, the station’s signal skidded for a minute, then was overwhelmed by a more powerful station’s broadcast of “All Things Considered”—Bill and Monica again, Microsoft in court, Texas storms. I could have been anywhere in America.
But the contrast between Garth Brooks and the tribal council, between the Native American radio station’s signal and National Public Radio’s, was a quick lesson in the cultural layers of western South Dakota. For all our unique homogeneity as a nation—there is less difference between Lakeland and Anchorage, a continent apart, than there is between any two European cities on opposite sides of the same river—we also are a nation of parallel cultures, integrated in fringes more than in fact.
It is the Native American fringe that I wanted to explore in South Dakota. The Sioux reservations there are all that remains of what was once an empire-like nation to which whites were nothing for millennia, then themselves a contemptible fringe. But not for long. The turn-around was swift and final. In the eyes of the Sioux, their sacred Black Hills above present-day Rapid City were first desecrated by white gold prospectors then by the rock sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore between 1927 and 1941.
Nevertheless, Mount Rushmore is a pre-eminent symbol of American power and patriotism, an attraction to 2 million visitors a year, its four faces looking across the hills and to the endless plains as if with unshakable faith in America’s manifest destiny. But Rushmore’s faces no longer rule alone.
Just a few miles away another monument is being carved out of another mountain in the Black Hills. When complete in perhaps 50 years, it will dwarf Rushmore in size and, I’ve heard it said many times, in popularity. The entire mountain is becoming a 563-foot-high sculpture of an Indian on horseback. He is looking and pointing to the east, because when the Indian was derisively asked by a white man, “Where are your lands now?” he pointed and replied, “My lands are where my dead lay buried.” It is not a look of faith but of defiance.
The Indian rising out of the mountain represents Crazy Horse, the great warrior and tactician, defender of the Great Plains and victor of the Little Bighorne, where Gen. Custer was killed in 1876. A year later Crazy Horse surrendered, vowing never again to fight whites. He was stabbed in the back by a guard in a scuffle at Fort Robinson in Nebraska for refusing to be jailed in a guardhouse. He was barely into his 30s.
The duel of legacies between Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Mountain is an obvious illustration of those parallel cultures in the Black Hills. But Crazy Horse Mountain is itself a paradox. Forgetting Rushmore—as I did during the three days that I spent on Crazy Horse Mountain—the Crazy Horse memorial itself is as deep a contrast between white and Indian cultures as I encountered. In many ways the contrasts inspired awe and hope. In just as many ways, the contrasts also were disturbing, and ultimately foreign, to the spirit of Crazy Horse.
Crazy Horse Mountain, you see, does not belong to the Sioux, nor to any Native Americans. It originally was acquired by the sculptor through a mining claim—the very sort of claim Crazy Horse had waged war against. The sculpture was not created by an Indian, nor is it likely to have ever been carved by Indians, considering the meaning of the Black Hills to Native Americans, or even Crazy Horse’s prohibition against being pictured or painted, let alone glorified.
It is the creation of one man: Korczak Ziolkowski (pronounced Core-CHOCK Jewel-CUFF-sky), a Bostonian of Polish descent who worked on the Rushmore presidents for a couple of months in 1939, and whose previous works had included plump carvings of Noah Webster, the classical pianist Ignacy Paderewski, and Wild Bill Hickok. A biographical booklet tells the story of how Korczak (who is always and everywhere referred to by his symbolically aristocratic first name) became intimate with Indian culture after World War II, how Indians invited him to sculpt Crazy Horse, and how the old Indians insisted the Memorial be in the Black Hills.
Like most of the factoids one encounters on the mountain, it is difficult to verify who the old Indians were, or how many there were. Certainly there were some. The majority of people in and around the Black Hills, however, didn’t take Korczak seriously.
He began working on the mountain by himself in 1948, living sparingly and tirelessly, earning the derision of local America, supporting himself by charging visitors 50 cents for admission to his studio home and selling wood from the mountain he was slowly acquiring. Married in 1950, father of 10 children, he devoted the rest of his and his family’s life to the sculpture and never accepted government grants. He died in 1982, at age 74, but had prepared detailed plans for the mountains, which his wife, Ruth, continues to implement with iron will—and hand.
But two stories are unfolding on Crazy Horse Mountain.
One is the story of the sculpture itself taking shape on the section of the mountain called Thunder in the Sky. Only the 87-foot face is finished, the imagination having to visualize the rest with help from a thick, painted outline of the horse’s head. But the work, rising higher than the highest pyramid or the Washington Monument, is still impressive enough to make you stop and stare for a very long time, even from two miles away. The sculpture radiates the echo of something mighty that once ruled these hills. On the ridge below the sculpture, it is another story, another world—the world of the Ziolkowski family enterprise, where the main business is not Crazy Horse but Korczak, Korczak, and more Korczak.
Like the autobiographical booklet, which reads like the life of a saint shorn of humility, the visitors center, the 10-minute slide orientation about the mountain, the family’s studio home and the gift shop are a shrine to Korczak’s life and work. I would have liked to come away from the mountain more enlightened about Crazy Horse. I learned nothing about him that I hadn’t learned better and more movingly in very few pages elsewhere. But I came away knowing more than I ever wanted to know about Korczak.
Even the sculpture on the mountain looked more Korczak than Crazy Horse. Black Elk, a celebrated Oglala Sioux who fought alongside Crazy Horse, once said the warrior was a small man among the Lakotas and he was slender and had a thin face. Yet the face on the sculpture, anything but thin, reproduces Korczak’s wide forehead, his large nose, the same creases of his eyes and the same prominent lips. When I brought this up with Korczak’s widow, she said: “That’s your imagination.” But she added, “It’s not a likeness of Crazy Horse. He never meant it to be. It is a symbol.”
The cult of Korczak reaches a climax in the studio home, a museum-like collection of family possessions, decorative odds and ends that matched neither the mountain nor each other. Some examples: A 100-year-old organ, a harp, a grand piano, Japanese wall screens, a picture of the “consecration of Korczak’s tomb at Crazy Horse” (above a picture of Pope John Paul II), a grandfather clock, an imitation chandelier, Norman Rockwell figurines, Korczak’s violin, Korczak’s palette, a Baroque mirror, a Chinese writing desk, a plaster-model of Korczak’s hand in a glass bowl, three immense paintings of Korczak and his wife, Ruth (the dominant objects in the room), and sofas upon sofas, which I found especially odd. One of the most moving stories about Crazy Horse was his refusal, as he bled to death after being stabbed at Fort Robinson, to be laid down on a cot. He wanted to die on the floor, closest to the land “where my dead lay buried.”
Walking everywhere on Korczak’s grounds, I missed Crazy Horse.
The mountain drew more than 1 million visitors in 1997 and expected to top that easily in 1998 because it was the sculpture’s 50 th anniversary. More than a few visitors, I noticed from reading the guest book, would say how many times they had visited since 1948 and what progress had been made. They reveled in a mountain coming to life before their eyes, in the wrinkle-like blast-grooves on Crazy Horse’s face being polished away in a reverse-aging process. No wonder some called it “a religious experience.”
But it was almost always Korczak’s feat they liked to note. I was more curious about the relevance of Crazy Horse. What of living Native Americans and the ideals he wished for them? “By Carving Crazy Horse,” Korczak had said, “If I can give back to the Indian some of his pride and create the means to keep alive his culture and heritage, my life will have been worthwhile.” It sounds patronizing, like a more polite treatment of the Indian as noble savage: Korczak as the benevolent giver, carrying out his white man’s burden in a 20 th century echo of Alexander Pope’s famously haughty “Lo, the poor Indian!”
I don’t mean that only Indians should build Indian monuments anymore than blacks should be the only ones to make movies about Malcolm X or Jews the only ones to design Holocaust memorials. Truth and beauty are matters of passion and commitment, not of race and heredity. But the passion and commitment of Crazy Horse Mountain seems misplaced, like a make-work project that justifies itself with a hip Indian theme. White and Indian cultures here are still on parallel lines, one using the other and revealing to the visitor more of its own power and glory than anything Indian. As the historian Robert Berkhofer noted of whites’ historical use of Indian images, “even today’s sympathetic artists chiefly understand Native Americans according to their own artistic needs and moral values rather than in terms of the outlook and desires of the people they profess to know and depict.”
The Crazy Horse monument is only the beginning of a plan to turn the mountain into a 1,000-acre town with its own university, a medical training center, a sports facility and a major Indian museum, all of it devoted to Indian students, Indian artists, the Indian future. If that vision comes true, the place may well prove to be a wondrous sort of cultural repatriation. For the moment, the transformation is difficult to imagine because just as the spirit of Crazy Horse is missing from the mountain, so, too, are actual Indians.
Only three Indians serve on the 23-member Crazy Horse Mountain Foundation, and they’re outnumbered just by Ruth Ziolkowski, who chairs the board, and three of her children currently serving. Few of the employees on the mountain are Indian. Ziolkowski says Indians tend to prefer family employment, or else she blames the better jobs on reservation casinos. Yet reservation unemployment is notoriously high—above 80 percent, according to Ike LeBeau, an employment training specialist at a Sioux job agency in Rapid City.
Even the greeter at Crazy Horse Mountain, Jay Citron, is a New Yorker who had first read about Crazy Horse in The Weekly Reader when he was 5 years old, back in 1953, and who used to send his grocery-delivery money to Korczak. But the Indians from around Rapid City down the hill, from those reservations that were looking to tap into the riches of the white tourism trade—they were not on the mountain.
Yet many Indians were in Ike LeBeau’s office even though his branch of the United Sioux Tribe of South Dakota Development Corp. is merely a door and a garage-size room in back of a strip mall. It is one of the first stops for Indians trying to make the transition from reservation life to white society—from one parallel universe to another. It’s a harrowing transition for many, exacerbated by a lack of education and the prevalence of racism.
LeBeau talked about change, and how Crazy Horse Mountain was a good thing, even though he doubted that many whites visited the place to learn about Crazy Horse as a Native American role model rather than to see how good a job they did with the sculpture. And he talked of the hope he sees all over, every day.
”Things are changing every day, no matter how slow. Even in my case, younger people come here and expect to see a white man sitting here, but they see me. They see hope. Older people come in and I get up and talk Lakota to them. Their eyes light up. They see hope.”
It is as if there was more of Crazy Horse in LeBeau’s isolated strip-mall office at the foot of the Black Hills than in all of Korczak’s thousand acres. I hadn’t heard a word of Lakota on Crazy Horse Mountain. I wouldn’t have understood it, but I would have recognized its sound the way it is easy to recognize the importance of Crazy Horse without knowing very much about him. But so much more than Crazy Horse was missing from the mountain that bears his name, beginning with a bridge between two unequal worlds. Korczak’s glory’s not it. Neither is a mountain where the only prominent Indian is made of stone.