End of an era at Crazy Horse Memorial

“reprinted with permission from Lillie Suburban Newspapers.”


This model of the finished Chief Crazy Horse sculpture shows visitors what Korczak Ziolkowski envisioned when he began his decades-long project in the Black Hills of South Dakota. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

Up close, the head of Chief Crazy Horse is amazingly large and confounds visitors. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

Ruth Ziolkowski chatted with guests at the visitors center at the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial and talked about carrying out her husband Korczak’s vision. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

As I read the obituary of Ruth Ziolkowski last week, I recalled meeting her four years ago at the Crazy Horse Memorial on top of Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills outside Rapid City, South Dakota, where she was managing the development of the memorial after her sculptor husband, Korczak, died in 1982.

She spoke to a group of visitors and then walked around the memorial site’s lunchroom, stopping at individual tables to answer questions. I was able to speak to her one-one one and she was so pleasant and unassuming even though I was undoubtedly asking the same questions she had heard many times over the years. One or two of her daughters were there also.

As we approached the memorial from a distance, we could see the sculpture on the mountaintop, but when we got to the top and walked right up to it, the immensity of Crazy Horse’s head carved out of reddish granite was astounding.  How could Korczak have had the vision and the endurance to carve the head and to plan the world’s tallest sculpture – Chief Crazy Horse astride his horse, arm extended and pointing to the ancestral lands of his people?

From the time Korczak died to Ruth’s own death May 21 at age 87, she worked diligently to carry out her husband’s dream with help from her family.

When Korczak died, he left mostly unfinished this statue of the Oglala Lakota chief on a mountain top not far from Mt. Rushmore. Crazy Horse was an Oglala hero who in 1876 led a war party to victory against General George Custer’s cavalry unit in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  A few months later an American soldier killed him for allegedly resisting imprisonment.

This huge project has been privately funded and progress has been slow. Crazy Horse’s head is an amazing 90 feet high, compared to 60 feet for the four presidents at Mount Rushmore where Korczak worked briefly as an assistant.

A well-known and honored sculptor back East, Korczak was invited west by Chief Henry Standing Bear who told him, “My fellow chiefs and I want the White Man to know the Red Man has heroes, too.” People thought Korczak was crazy to do this project – American Indians weren’t very popular then.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the work was grueling – dynamite and a bulldozer and hard physical labor to move over a million tons of the mountain, building a road to the top and preparing the site for the sculpture.

Eventually, the national news media learned about the project and publicized it. The Minneapolis Star Tribune ran a full-page story about the project in the early years.

Ruth was 18 years Korczak’s junior. The couple had 10 children, and she raised the kids and managed the business side of the project, while he did the labor. Using a 1/300th scale model, she would also explain the project to visitors. When the kids were old enough, they helped with the work.

Though Korczak worked on it for 35 years, because of the scope of the project and their age difference, they knew it would not be completed in his lifetime, so they planned accordingly. And after his death, Ruth continued managing the foundation, which eventually included the sculpture, the Indian Museum of North America and visitors center and the new Indian University of North America.  More than a million people visit the memorial each year.

I can still picture Ruth at the visitors center explaining her husband’s vision and modestly saying, “It is financed entirely by donations and admissions and the kids’ help. It is truly a family project.”

Now two of their daughters will continue to pursue this vision as directors of the foundation board.  The display of the small model lined up against the mountain makes clear the vision what it is yet to become.

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About Pam O'Meara 47 Articles
About Me Staff writer, Lillie Suburban newspapers Free-lance writer Member, Midwest Travel Writers Association I’ve been a writer for over 20 years at Lillie Suburban Newspapers in St. Paul. I’ve also done free-lance writing – for 3M business and health publications and for a running club and a speech therapy group. My special interest and focus for over a decade has been travel writing – about my trips and those of others in the United States and abroad, and I am a 10-year member of Midwest Travel Writers Association. I have a bachelor’s degree in English from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in comparative literature from the University of Michigan. I was an English teacher for almost three years before having kids. Life is good! Writing awards for Pam O’Meara 2015 Minnesota Newspaper Association -- Second place for columns on Selfridge’s in London, Missouri prison, mother’s death 2014 Midwest Travel writers Mark Twain – honorable mention for story on Hemingway in Pamplona, Spain 2013 MTWA – first place – recent travel sites – Fort Bragg and father 2008 MTWA – third place – newspaper story on Hawaii: the Big Island 2006—MTWA – second place – recent sites – South Korea – DMZ