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Crazy Horse Memorial: A Monumental Tribute to a Lakota Legend

Rising from the granite face of Thunderhead Mountain in South Dakota‘s Black Hills, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a massive mountainside monument dedicated to one of history‘s most famous Native American leaders. Still far from completion over seven decades after work began, the memorial will eventually depict the Oglala Lakota war chief Crazy Horse riding his steed and pointing towards his ancestral homeland.

The story of Crazy Horse and his people‘s struggle against the U.S. government‘s westward expansion is etched into the history of the American West. Born around 1840, Crazy Horse rose to become a skilled warrior and prominent leader of the Oglala band of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe. He fought fiercely against U.S. forces in Red Cloud‘s War and the Black Hills War, playing a key role in the Lakota and Cheyenne‘s overwhelming victory against General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

In May 1877, Crazy Horse surrendered to U.S. troops under General Crook at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. He was fatally wounded in September of that year while allegedly resisting imprisonment, though accounts differ. He quickly became a revered martyr for the Lakota, famous for his battle prowess, strong leadership, humility, and lifelong quest to preserve his people‘s traditions and way of life in the face of American encroachment.

A Herculean Undertaking in the Black Hills

The origins of the Crazy Horse Memorial can be traced back to 1939, when Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, inviting him to create a monument honoring Native American heroes in the sacred Black Hills. Ziolkowski had gained notoriety earlier that year for his work on the Mount Rushmore monument.

In 1940, Ziolkowski began designing a sculpture that would commemorate Crazy Horse and his legacy. Work officially began in 1948, commencing with a dedication ceremony led by Standing Bear and other Lakota elders. Ziolkowski and Standing Bear shared a vision of the memorial as a means to honor the culture, traditions and living heritage of North American Indians and increase interracial understanding.

Using dynamite, bulldozers and drilling rigs, crews have been slowly blasting and chipping away at Thunderhead Mountain for decades, gradually revealing Crazy Horse‘s form from the granite. The work is painstaking and progresses slowly, with the harsh South Dakota winters limiting construction to just seven months out of the year.

If completed as designed, the Crazy Horse Memorial will rank as the world‘s second largest statue after the Statue of Unity in India. It is already considered the largest mountain carving in progress anywhere on Earth. Here are some key statistics that highlight the monument‘s enormous scale:

Measurement Feet Meters
Height of Crazy Horse‘s face 87 27
Height of sculpture 563 172
Length of sculpture 641 195
Crazy Horse‘s arm length 263 80
Width of horse‘s head 219 67

For comparison, the heads of the four U.S. presidents carved into Mount Rushmore are each 60 feet (18 m) tall. All four of those heads stacked on top of each other would only reach to just above the warrior‘s shoulder.

Crazy Horse‘s determined face, gazing out over the plains, was completed on June 3, 1998 after a half-century of carving and shaping. Work is now focused on roughing out the leader‘s outstretched arm and his horse‘s head and mane in the round.

When finished, Crazy Horse‘s arm will point towards the horizon, indicating his people‘s land. His sculptors used descriptions from survivors at the Battle of Little Bighorn and other contemporaries to determine his appearance, as no known photographs of Crazy Horse exist. He famously refused to be photographed or depicted in artwork during his lifetime.

A Center of Native American Culture and Education

While the mountain carving understandably attracts the most attention, the Crazy Horse Memorial complex has expanded over the decades to become a major center of Native American history, arts and culture. The 1,000-acre site now includes the Indian Museum of North America, displaying a large collection of indigenous artifacts and artworks, and the adjoining Native American Educational and Cultural Center, which hosts lectures, performances and educational events.

Admission fees, along with donations and commemorative merchandise sales, help fund the memorial‘s ongoing construction, overseen by the nonprofit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. The monument is a massive undertaking requiring extensive engineering and significant financial resources. By relying entirely on private funding, including admission revenues and contributions, the memorial‘s builders aim to retain independence over the nature and pace of the project.

Controversies and Criticisms

The Crazy Horse Memorial has attracted its share of controversy and criticism since its inception. Some Lakota and other Native Americans object to the monument on religious and cultural grounds, viewing it as a desecration of the Black Hills, which they hold sacred. Leaders like Crazy Horse fought hard to preserve those lands from American development and settlement.

Critics also point out that Crazy Horse was deeply modest and spiritual, and likely would have opposed such a grandiose depiction of himself. He rejected personal glory or accolades, always putting his people‘s welfare and freedom first. Carving an enormous statue of him strikes some as disrespectful to his values and way of life.

Questions have also been raised about the memorial foundation‘s finances and motives over the years. Some detractors view the project as more of a tourist attraction than a sincere tribute to Native American culture and accuse the Ziolkowski family of personally profiting from the enterprise. The foundation has vigorously denied such allegations.

An Audacious Dream Taking Shape

Despite the criticisms and controversies, the Crazy Horse Memorial stands as a one-of-a-kind monument, an audacious dream steadily taking shape year after year, decade after decade. For its supporters, the memorial is a vital tribute to Native American culture, history and identity, a powerful counterpoint to the carved presidential faces of Mount Rushmore 17 miles away.

As work continues and the sculptural forms of Crazy Horse and his horse slowly emerge from the solid rock of the Black Hills, the warrior‘s steely gaze and outstretched arm are visible reminders of indigenous people‘s strength, spirit and presence on the American landscape. The Crazy Horse Memorial has already become a major landmark and significant cultural destination, attracting over a million visitors per year from around the world.

While its ultimate completion date remains unknown, the Crazy Horse Memorial seems certain to stand as one of the most ambitious and distinctive public monuments in the United States and the world, an enduring if imperfect attempt to honor and elevate the too often marginalized heritage of North America‘s first inhabitants. As the Black Hills and the Great Plains have been central to centuries of Native American life and culture, this massive mountainside tribute to one of their greatest heroes aspires to solidify and extend that legacy for generations to come.