Our RV was parked in the Black Hills of South Dakota for two weeks. The history and legend of these hills, not the least of which is that they constitute sacred land to the Lakota Sioux people did not escape us. After a long and drawn-out conflict between the U.S. government and the Lakota, the government seized the land in 1877. From that point on, the Black Hills have experienced mining, logging, recreational uses, and two monumental stone carvings, both of which we came to see.
Our visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial was a way to pay humble respects to Native American history and to learn from it. Unfortunately, undertones of shame were difficult to ignore. And while our visit to Mt Rushmore was to pay respects to our national parks, it came with subdued pride for our democracy. Nevertheless, the tug-of-war between pride and shame dissipated when we were stopped in our tracks and stood in awe of the extraordinary human accomplishment of such massive stone carvings. Instead of immersing ourselves in Crazy Horse’s story (this will come later in our travels), we found ourselves paying more attention to the life and work of Korczak Ziolkowski. Instead of reflecting on each President’s accomplishments and how they shaped our American democracy, we could not stop thinking about John Gutzon Borglum.
To put it as bluntly as possible, each monument is the creation of an egotistical white man with visions of grandeur. Initially, the Mt Rushmore project was the idea of South Dakota’s historian Doane Robinson to promote tourism to the state. Robinson wanted to pay tribute to the great American West by way of a stone carving that would include the likeness of a Lakota Chief and famed explorers Lewis and Clark, among others. He invited nationally renowned American artist John Gutzon Borglum to do the work. Interestingly at the time of this invitation, Borglum had begun a project in Georgia with a different take on American democracy.
Borglum was an opportunist – a worthy trait for an artist and a necessary one to become nationally renowned. He was also quick tempered – not uncommon among opportunistic artists, I suspect. And he was racist – also not uncommon among white Americans during his time. He once said, “I would not trust an Indian off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Each of these traits worked together to bring him atop Stone Mountain in 1915 and eventually to Mt Rushmore. It was Borglum’s national reputation (and perhaps his racism?) that led him to Helen Plane of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan.
Plane invited him to carve a 20-ft bust of Robert E. Lee on the 800-ft face of Stone Mountain. Borglum suggested her idea would amount to nothing more than a postage stamp on a large stone face, so he conceived a monument of grander scale. His vision included Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson riding their horses, followed by artillery troops. To honor the major financial backers of the monument, the KKK, Borglum agreed to build an alter to them when offered the following proposal from Helen Plane, “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”
Within a year’s time, Borglum’s headstrong will clashed with the financiers of the monument and came to a violent head when the artist smashed his clay and plaster models. He left Georgia permanently and ended his tenure with the KKK, which was likely prompted by Doane Robinson’s more lucrative invitation. Borglum discarded Robinson’s original idea and came up with his own vision to include four presidents representing his personal symbolism of America – birth (George Washington), growth (Thomas Jefferson), development (Theodore Roosevelt), and preservation (Abraham Lincoln). The carving commenced in 1927 and Borglum devoted his remaining 14 years of life to the 60-ft tall profiles that would emerge from Mt Rushmore. His son Lincoln finished it for him after he died in 1941.
Meanwhile, Chief Henry Standing Bear had a vision to counteract the newly created monument dedicated to the United States of America. Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” This was written to another well recognized and highly accomplished American stone artist, Korczak Ziolowski. It took Ziolowski a couple years to mull it over and create some designs for this monumental work of art. But like Borglum, Ziolowski never met an opportunity he didn’t like.
Ziolkowski set out to design the Crazy Horse Memorial, ultimately to become the world’s largest stone-carved monument. And unlike Mt Rushmore, it would be created three-dimensionally from one side of the mountain to the other. One can imagine Ziolkowski’s motivations to take on such a project that he expected to complete in 30 years. Perhaps his difficult background growing up in abusive foster homes gave him a deeper sensitivity to the Sioux Nation’s plight, or perhaps it was being in the shadow of Borglum during his stint as an assistant on the Mt Rushmore project. After all, Chief Henry Standing Bear offered Ziolkowski an opportunity to outdo the other famous stone carver. Or maybe it has nothing to do with Borglum or the Sioux Nation, rather it was simply an opportunity to do something no other had done or was willing to do. Perhaps none or all the above. Whatever his initial motivation, Ziolkowski blasted away the first pieces of Thunderhead Mountain in 1948 and commenced to dedicate the rest of his life (and his family’s) to carving it.
Approximately 17 miles from Mt Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain. The completed head of Crazy Horse is 87 ½ ft, much larger than a president’s head on Mt Rushmore. The entire completed memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Although the memorial is unfinished, the vision of its completion looms large beyond the detailed and completed face of the Lakota leader. The Crazy Horse Memorial came into existence to counter the nearby monument to America and it is probably for that reason it remains unfinished with no end in sight. Indeed, funds from the U.S. Government have been refused numerous times. Regardless of its relationship to Mt Rushmore, the memorial to Crazy Horse was inspired by the spirit of the Sioux Nation, while the stone carving itself is the mega-vision of one artist.
So, what did we come away with from our visit to these great monuments? The obvious take away is that together they represent a large piece of American history, both bright and dark. For that reason, we recommend anyone traveling to South Dakota to visit both monuments. But mostly, we learned the stories behind two amazing stone carvings. We learned the motivation behind the extraordinary creation of each monument began with the work of one artist. Mt Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Memorial – two artists, two egos, two visions, two lives dedicated, two immortal stone-carved monuments. That is quite a legacy.