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  • Writer's pictureChris Wright

The Crazy Story of Crazy Horse

Updated: Feb 10, 2018

The Ziolkowskis and the Crazy Horse Memorial, South Dakota

Author's note: The following is an unused draft chapter of my book, No More Worlds to Conquer. It followed an article I wrote for Discovery Channel Magazine on Crazy Horse in October 2010 which can be read here.

Picture Mount Rushmore, that most iconic of mountain carvings, 14 years in the making. Now take one of those 60-foot presidential faces and imagine that the sculptors had made it 90 feet high instead. Then imagine that, rather than just the face, they decided to carve the man’s entire body. Riding on a horse.

Imagine, too, that instead of carving it into the rock face in relief, they decided to turn the entire mountain range into the statue – carving it in the round, like a vast Rodin sculpture. Next, refuse all state and federal funding, making it almost entirely the endeavour of just one family, moving at such a painstaking pace that after 65 years of tireless effort you still couldn’t say it’s more than a quarter done.

Welcome to the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Here, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just 30 miles down US Highway 385 from Mount Rushmore, the Ziolkowski family – now in its fourth generation of involvement with the project – has been carving the world’s largest statue out of the pegmatite granite of Thunderhead Mountain since the first 10-ton dynamite blast in 1948. It is perhaps the most audacious piece of craftsmanship ever attempted. With a planned final height of 560 feet, it depicts Crazy Horse, the Native American hero, a Lakota warrior who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Today it is an astonishing spectacle, and you never forget your first double-take from the highway when you glimpse the vast carved face – the one completed bit of the monument – hewn into the mountain’s backbone high up above the valley floor. But as you stand in the visitor centre and look at the scale model of how the monument is intended to look, and then look at the mountain, and then look back at the model again, and then the mountain, you can’t help but think: they’ve barely even started.

Alongside all the chapters about moving on from a moment, this one is about the reverse, a family who decide never to move on at all: to devote their lives to creating something they have absolutely no chance of seeing completed within their lifetimes. Neither will their kids, or their grandkids. This is a story about an idea so big it will take half a dozen generations’ tireless effort to realise it.

Korzcak Ziolkowski was a sculptor who knew hardship from almost the moment he was born in Boston to Polish parents in 1908. He was orphaned in an accident at the age of one and grew up in foster homes, chiefly under the care of an Irish guardian who was a builder by day and a professional prize fighter by night. Beaten and mistreated, he left at the earliest opportunity at age 16, taking odd jobs to support himself through school before finding a job at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s shipyards in East Boston. He spent six years here, as a carpenter, pattern marker and woodcarver. It was hard graft, but vital to his future life. He came to understand wood: its texture, how it behaved beneath a knife, and how its grain could be carved. An early assignment was a 12-foot figurehead of an Aztec chieftain that needed repair.

He was inspired, and found direction for the first time, producing wood carvings in his spare time – first furniture, then art, from a mahogany grandfather clock to an ornate chessboard and a candelabra. He began to be noticed, and then to be commissioned, and came to know the sculptor Jan Kirchmayer, who had completed the carvings for the cathedral of St John the Divine in New York. Ziolkowski never took a single class in art or sculpture, but he did study the classicists, and by 1939 won the sculpture first prize at New York’s World Fair for a portrait of the Polish pianist Ignacy Paderewski. Three feet tall, weighing 1,200 pounds, carved from marble and wood in five and a half days without a living model to base it on, it made his name.

That year, he was hired as an assistant sculptor by Gutzon Borglum to work on the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. It didn’t last: after just 19 days in the Black Hills, Korzcak got into a fight with Lincoln Borglum, Gutzon’s son and the supervisor on the monument. And by fight, don’t picture an argument, with some harsh words spoken: Lincoln had to go into town for medical attention afterwards. “Ziolkowski,” says a biography of Lincoln Borgman, “was a bear.”

Fired immediately, Korzcak had at least got a sense of the landscape and rock that would later take over his life. But it would have to wait. Returning east, he moved to progressively grander projects, turning a 33-ton block of Tennessee marble into a 13 and a half foot statue of Noah Webster, a lexicographer for whom the Webster dictionaries are named. The sculpture today stands on the town hall front lawn in Hartford, Connecticut.

Then he volunteered for the army as the USA entered the Second World War. Aged 34, he landed on Omaha Beach as part of the D-Day landings. He was wounded twice, and made sergeant in anti-aircraft artillery. Even while in the army, he carried on carving, with anything that happened to be about: he turned a fallen tree into an eight-foot Charles De Gaulle.

When he got back, it was time to answer a calling that had been in his mind since receiving a letter in 1939. It had come from a Lakota Indian Chief called Henry Standing Bear, who lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation not far from where Mount Rushmore was taking shape. “My fellow Chiefs and I would like the White Man to know the Red Man has great heroes, also,” he wrote, and asked Korczak to carve a mountain memorial to Crazy Horse in the Black Hills.

Korczak considered it for years, having several meetings with Standing Bear and learning all about Native American heroes and traditions, but things kept getting in the way: first the Noah Webster statue, then the war. But by the time he came back, battle-scarred, he had decided: he would do it.

He and Standing Bear spent months searching for the right mountain before picking out a 600 foot high mass that rises sheer from the surrounding valley floor. It had no name, so he called it Thunderhead Mountain, because of unusual cloud formations he saw nearby. To secure it, he bought a mining claim on the mountain, using his own money. Then, having put his affairs in order back east, he arrived in the Black Hills to start work on May 3, 1947.

Once he began, he never did anything else for the rest of his life. He died in 1982 after 35 years of ceaseless effort on the mountain. So today it is his widow, Ruth, who leads the work, and it is Ruth, dressed in a bright pink flower-patterned cardigan ,with her grey hair held back in a purple band, who sits with me at the memorial’s visitor complex restaurant to tell me what it’s all about.

In a way, Crazy Horse is even more Ruth’s story than Korzcak’s, since it has dominated a greater part of her life. “I was only 20 when I got here, and being 83 now, I think that’s relatively young,” she says. She had crossed paths with Korzcak while still a child when he visited her Connecticut school with Henry Standing Bear; both men made an impression, not least because she had never seen a Native American Indian before. “We were fascinated,” she recalls, remembering this of Standing Bear: “He spoke the most beautiful English. When was the last time you heard someone use the word ‘indubitably’?”

She came to South Dakota in 1947 to see how Korczak was doing and never really left. “Korczak picked me up in the railroad depot in Rapid City. To get here and see the mountain, with absolutely nothing done, no road coming in, no electricity, no water… Korczak always said it was as close to pioneering as you could come in this country. He loved every bit of it, and I do too.” They were married on Thanksgiving, 1950.

The first job had been to build somewhere to live. Korczak spent the first seven months living in an army tent, cutting trees to build a home out of the logs. The studio home is still there, and was quite an undertaking in its own right: no rough-and-ready log cabin, it has log beams 70 feet long and a skylight 30 feet up. He would continue to develop it in the winter months each year when work on the mountain was difficult, and as interest in the mountain grew, it evolved from a home to a visitor centre, which had 61 rooms, all built by him, by the time of his death.

Sorting out the basic infrastructure to live in this wilderness took the first two years of his time here, including clearing timber to build the first road to the studio and, later, to the mountain. By the time he was ready to start to carve any rock he was broke, too, with $174 to his name; aged 40 by now, it must have seemed a precarious existence.

Clearly, I say to Ruth, he believed it could be done. But did you, really?

“Absolutely. Korczak could sell you Brooklyn Bridge if you didn’t want it anymore, without question,” she says. “He was so positive, and he knew. His whole philosophy in life was: you can do anything in this world you want to, no matter what it is, if you’re willing to work hard enough and pay the price. He didn’t have a doubt in the world and I don’t have a doubt in the world now.”

I ask what it was that had made a white sculptor of Polish extraction so close to the Native American community that he wanted to devote the rest of his life to honouring it.

“After Standing Bear wrote to him, he made it a definite goal to learn more about the Indian people in this country,” she says. “The more he learned, the more he agreed they had been treated badly, and had every right in the world to a memorial. He was more than willing to carve a mountain for them.” There is a sense that the suffering of Native Americans had some resonance for him both as an immigrant and, in the background, because of the treatment of his family’s native Poland. “Some of it goes back to his Polish ancestry,” Ruth says. “He was proud to be an American but also proud of his Polish heritage. And if you look at the country of Poland and see how they’ve been divided up and sliced off, and a piece here and a piece there, it’s a little like what happened to the Indians as they were pushed west. He was always for the underdog, even when he was growing up: he was the one who rescued the kid who was being picked on by the bully, or danced with the wallflower that didn’t have anyone dancing with her. He just cared about people.”

The first blast of a great many took place at a dedication on June 3 1948, when Chief Standing Bear set off a dynamite charge to knock 10 tons of rock off Thunderhead Mountain. It was a moment of some ceremony: 400 native Americans were there in full traditional dress, and among them were five of the nine remaining survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse’s most famous victory. The community seemed to be heartened by symmetries they had noted in dates around Korczak’s life: he was born on September 6, which was the date Crazy Horse had died in 1877.

By now, the sheer scale of just what he was attempting had become clear. Initially, the plan had been to carve only the top 100 feet of the mountain. The extension of this idea to carving the entire mountain was far beyond any other sculptural endeavour in the modern or the ancient world. Crazy Horse, when complete, will be a bare-chested man with flowing locks raining from the back of his head, an outstretched arm pointing stridently forward, upon a horse in stride, its front left leg bent in motion, its head bowed and nostrils flared while its mane bounces with energy. And all in such preposterous scale. All four of the Mount Rushmore heads, they say, would fit inside Crazy Horse’s head. His outstretched arm will be 263 feet long, almost the length of a football field, and big enough to stand 4,000 people upon it. The horse’s head will be the height of a 22-storey building, with nostrils each big enough to fit a house in.

The transition from a 100-foot relief carving to an entire mountain in the round meant an acceptance that this was work he would never live to see completed. The original plan, he had thought, would take him 10 years, depending on money and the weather, among other things.

“Standing Bear had something like Mount Rushmore in mind, just a face, but then he and Korczak spent a whole summer traveling the Black Hills looking for a mountain,” Ruth says. “They climbed Armchair, over here,” – she points to a neighbouring mountain – “and they were going to carve that, but they got to the top and it’s split down the middle.” The condition of the rock would be crucial in a venture of this size. “At the top of that mountain, they looked over at this one, and they thought: well, maybe that’ll be solid.” They climbed it, and Korczak came up with the idea of the man on his horse. “And, as only he could say, he said: what the hell, it’s going to take me the rest of my life anyway, I might as well make it the biggest and the best. And that was it.”

Realising this was going to be the work of generations, he then set about drawing up books of measurements and plans, three volumes of them, so that a clear outline was available for whoever was completing the monument. He made a small marble 1/300th scale model of the sculpture for reference – carved from a slab of marble taken from a shoulder cut for his earlier Noah Webster statue.

Progress in the early days was inhibited by two things. One, there was no money; and two, as visitors were drawn to the site in order to help with that money problem, a priority had to become the infrastructure in order to get those visitors in, rather than the mountain sculpture itself.

Korczak had decided that Crazy Horse had to be a non-profit humanitarian venture, and would be more than just a statue: it would also include a museum of Native American art and culture, and a university and medical training centre for Native American Indians. Consequently, it qualified for non-profit status from the Federal Government in 1949. It became a foundation, with a board of directors. Early on, he believed that donations from visitors – which were voluntary – would finance the work, but in the first year that approach yielded just five cents per person. A 50 cents entrance fee was levied instead, growing over the years. Believing that these grassroots contributions would be enough, he would twice turn down $10 million in federal funding, believing taxpayers should not fund the work and worrying about the strings that would come with government money.

Early on, none of this was enough to live on, so Korczak bought some pure-bred Holstein cows and set up a dairy to generate some income. Again, building the dairy fell to him and Ruth. Then he built a lumber mill too, which not only brought in money but provided the wood for the growing visitor complex.

Then, having built a road from the highway to the visitor centre, the next problem was how to get on to the mountain to carve it anyway. His studio had been built about a mile from the mountain in order to be safe from blasting, so the first thing to do was drive a road through dense forest to the mountainside. But that just got him to the foot of a 600-foot block of rock. Initially, he would go as high as he could on horseback, then climb a rope to the top with his tools on his back: sufficient to create the first symbolic blast, but clearly not sustainable. So he built a staircase, 741 steps from the valley bottom to the top of the mountain. It took him a whole, bitter winter in 1948-49 to do and involved carrying 29 tons of green lumber up for the staircase.

What must Ruth have made of this? Coming here today, where one can see the face and the results of half a century of effort, one can believe it could one day be completed. But there must have been years – decades – when there was just nothing to see, no tangible evidence of progress.

“Oh, you know, it was the little things that made a difference,” she says. “Getting the stairs built up the mountain, and getting a compressor and actually having a piece of equipment; even though you couldn’t see the difference, you felt in your heart that you’d made progress. But there’s no question about it, it was hard.” One time, a visitor came to watch a blast take place, and stood beside Korczak. After the blast she asked him: “How many tons did that move?” “Around 300,” he said. She looked back at the mountain. “Well if that’s all the dent 300 tons makes, I know why it’s going to take forever.”

The first two pieces of equipment were a second-hand jackhammer and a gas-powered Buda compressor. As ever, nothing was easy, even with this rudimentary heavy machinery: the compressor had to stay at the bottom of the mountain (how else to get it up?) and to get the compressed air up to the jackhammer, Korczak had to make a pipeline 2,040 feet long, around the base, up the far side of the mountain, and eventually over the top of it.

It was the summer of 1949 before Korczak could really say the groundwork was complete, but even now, there was no carving to be done, not in the sense of an artist fashioning an image from the stone. For the rest of his life, pretty much, all Korczak would do was blast rock away in order to create the broad shape of the sculpture. In 1949 he blasted 97,000 tons of rock off the mountain, starting near the top of what would be the head. By now, word had got around, and 52,000 people visited the site in 1949 alone, but the problem was there was really nothing to see – no hint of what it might become beyond the 1/300 marble model. To help with that, Korczak painted an outline of the horse’s head on the rock, swinging down on a rope with a bucket of paint tied to his belt. Being right on the face of the mountain, there was no way he could keep his perspective of where he should be painting, so he strapped a field telephone to his back and put Ruth on the other end of it a mile away, from where she would give him directions. The lines had to be six feet wide, and though the original ones were swiftly eroded by weather and blasting, you can still see where they have been re-marked today.

The next five years passed like this: blasting, clearing, blasting. A debris field grew along the sides of the mountain, and it continues to grow today, a sprawling scree slope angling from the flanks. Blocking out the profile of Crazy Horse’s head, Korczak knocked 630,000 tons of rock from the mountain during this time. The whole time, he carried his tools on his back up those 741 steps.

It was time for more heavy machinery, specifically a bulldozer to clear the rock from what would become the outstretched arm, but yet again this involved a considerable practical challenge: getting a bulldozer up there. So a whole winter, 1956-7, was spent blasting out a road along the back side of the mountain. This eased things considerably, letting him drive to work in a jeep and taking the Buda compressor up top, but it also brought the considerable challenge of bulldozing on a 600 foot high mountain. It was 1963 before the arm would be cleared, by which time two million tons of rock had gone.

A meal of buffalo stew arrives, hot and delicious, and Ruth tells me about the benefits of local livestock. “Buffalo is very much like beef, but if it’s allowed to range like they did for years, it’s not anywhere near as fat and it’s a lot better for you.” She bemoans the pattern of feed lots for steers and cattle. One advantage of this frontier existence, clearly, is decent free range meat.

At this point we are joined by Monique, who is Ruth and Korczak’s daughter. One of the most remarkable parts of the Crazy Horse story is that while working in this wilderness, Ruth gave birth to and raised 10 children. All 10 were born at Crazy Horse, one of them delivered by Korczak when a doctor couldn’t make it through a snowstorm. As the family grew, Korczak, with characteristic clarity of purpose, decided that rather than send them all to some distant school, they constituted a school class in their own right, so he bought an old single-room schoolhouse, moved it to Crazy Horse, and six of the 10 kids were educated there by a certified teacher.

Monique is the ninth; the second youngest. She is tough and brassy, with blonde hair swept back out of her face, in a khaki sheepskin-lined jacket with Buffalo Roundup embossed on the chest, and the look of someone capable of hard and physical work, though she is a brilliant artist too, with a body of excellent sculpture behind her. What was it like, I ask her, growing up out here, in a family so involved with the mountain? “Well, not very different, because that’s all we knew,” she says. “It’s just home. I thought everybody carved a mountain when they were growing up.”

“We were a normal family,” she says. “We fight like cats and dogs, and if you get mad at one you have the others to play with.”

The original log cabin was at least built by the time kids started arriving, but little else. As they grew, they all adapted to frontier life. “The older kids hauled water from down at the ranch. They brought it up in five gallon buckets,” says Ruth. “We had electricity two years after we were here. We didn’t have it when John was born,” the eldest child, born in 1948 (followed by, in this order, Dawn, Adam, Jadwiga, Casimer, Anne, Mark, Joel, Monique and finally Marinka in 1962). “It didn’t hurt any of them. They all learned how to work and I don’t think any of them were worse for wear.” This has engendered in her a somewhat alternative view of child labour. “The law says children can’t work until they’re 16. Well what makes anybody think they’re going to cease to be a couch potato and want a job when they turn 16? I understand where the laws came from, the sweat shops in the big cities, and I don’t approve of that. But I think every child should be able to do something.”

Monique recalls: “If there’s a job to be done, you just do it, that was just part of living here. There was always snow to shovel, or help with the cows. That was the deal. Sunday afternoon we’d play baseball or listen to music. There was a lot of laughter and I know we had time to fool around because I can remember all the things we weren’t supposed to do that we did anyway.” She smiles. “We didn’t do bad things: just climb that mountain you’re not supposed to, get in the lake, roughhouse, play the games that you play.”

The elder kids – there were five boys and five girls – began to help their father on the mountain, or their mother in the visitor centre or on the dairy farm. It was increasingly becoming a team effort.


In the mid 1960s Korczak took a break from the mountain itself to create a huge plaster 1/34 scale model of the mountain carving. It’s a centrepiece of the visitor centre today: weighing 16 tons, it is mounted on railway tracks so it can be placed outside when it is dry but moved inside when it rains, which, this being South Dakota, it frequently does. This helped people visualise what the whole project was eventually meant to look like. But today, when you go and see it, with the actual mountain visible in relief a mile behind it, you can’t help but think: they’ll never finish this thing. At least now the face is there to see; in the 60s, there was nothing but what looked like a quarried mountain. But even with the face intact, all 90 feet of it, there’s no avoiding the fact that it represents just the tiniest part of the whole. His flowing locks of hair alone look like a century of effort at this rate. There’s a tunnel, an access road, through the middle of the mountain, and you can see that it will eventually form the gap between Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm and the top of the horse’s back. Some of it looks impossible simply through a question of gravity: the horse’s head has an enormous overhang that will eventually be at least 200 feet in the air, and its leg involves a complicated contortion with an upturned hoof that will require some precipitous negotiations with the rock. Having made this model, on this scale, most people would have looked at the mountain and thought: I can never do this. But they all pressed on, and still do.

That little tunnel alone, just big enough to get a truck through, took him two years, a 110 foot epic of what Korczak would call “hard rock mining at its worst.” That’s 400,000 tons of rock right here, much of which had to be carried out in wheelbarrows. The rest of the 1960s went on roughing out the area that will eventually be the horse’s mane.

In 1971, aged 63 and after more than 20 years of effort, he began working on the horse’s head. It was a landmark of sorts, but even this didn’t mean any carving, but yet more blasting, with the entire east quarter of the mountain needing to be removed. By now at least they had a newer compressor – second-hand, again – and gradually the stock of bulldozers, loaders and drills developed into something that looks professional. Today there are about 80 vehicles on site, from jeeps to a 45-ton crane.

Pictures of Korczak from this time show a wild-haired, immensely bearded beast of a man, usually in a Stetson hat; he looks like a man who has lived his life on a mountain. But he was ageing, too, and began working on his own tomb, within the complex, in 1971. He was injured frequently, had six separate discs in his back removed in four operations, and was felled by two heart attacks. He spent a summer bulldozing with a plaster cast on his leg. By the end of the 1970s he had blasted seven million tons of rock off the mountain and was showing the wear and tear from it.

But finally, one could perceive the rough form of the sculpture’s outline, and with that, visitor numbers increased, topping a million in 1981. Not long after a quadruple heart bypass in 1982, he spent his 74th birthday supervising the re-painting of that horse’s head outline he had first put up all that time ago. A month later, on October 20 1982, he died, and was placed in the tomb he had prepared next to the mountain (with a door-knocker on the inside, just in case). He’d made his own pine casket too. The inscription on the door says: “Storyteller in stone.”

If Ruth had been in her husband’s shadow during the early years of Crazy Horse, it did not take her long to step out of it and assert herself. One of the first things she did after Korzcak’s death was to completely change the focus and priority of the project, to focus on Crazy Horse’s face rather than the horse.

“Well, after Korczak passed away, there was a lot he’d done,” says Ruth. “He’d worked down in front of the face, cleared off the top of the arm, and he would have carved the horse’s head first. But I couldn’t.”

Why? “It’s a memorial to the Indians. His answer was: there are four faces carved at Mount Rushmore, what’s one more? I’ll do the horse first, and it will bring in more people, and we’ll make more money so we can carve the mountain and build the museum and the university and the medical training centre. But when he passed on, there were a lot of people who didn’t think it would ever go beyond that: that we’d all just up and quit, or that we didn’t have the ability.”

It took the best part of two years to realise it, she said, but then it became clear: “By golly, it’s so near ready to carve the face. His face is only 90 feet, the horse’s head is 219 feet. And the eyebrows and the nose and the eyes and the mouth, they’re all relatively close. Whereas on a horse’s head, you get the ear carved and it’s a long way down to the eye, and then you’ve got to go all the way to the nostril. It just made a world of difference. So I did something different from what Korczak said. To see any progress, and to prove we really could do it, I said: we’re going to do the face first.”

And would he have been supportive of that change?

“Well if he wasn’t, I didn’t hear about it then, but I’ll hear about it later.”

Creating the face took 11 years of work before its dedication in 1998. Opening just one eye took four months, 560 bore holes and 1,373 feet of drilling, with a range of techniques from hammers and chisels, feathers and wedges to a powerful and precise jet torch to finish the surface. But it changed everything: it turned the project from a quarry to an artwork.

Earlier in the day I have been taken around the site by Pat Dobbs, a former journalist who now handles all media inquiries about the site. Helpful, cheerful and smart, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the project and the family, he spends hours with me, showing me around every facet of the enterprise from the visitor centre to discarded early machinery with evident pride. But the high point, one not normally granted to the casual visitor, is when we drive up the workers’ access road, don hard hats, and step up on the top of the arm to look the great man in the face.

Crazy Horse is a powerful presence, imposing and glowering: as Pat says, “his mood changes through the day. He can get real grumpy.” The artistry on show is extraordinary, the precise curl of the plump lower lip, the menacing folds around the eyes, the squat spread of the nose. Pat takes my photo next to the face; I don’t come a third of the way up the chin. You’d need 10 of me to reach the nose.

The face gave the world something identifiable to see, and it moved on from the loss of Korczak. “It proved to the world that we could carve the mountain, because there was Crazy Horse’s face to look at,” Ruth says. The decision may have saved the whole enterprise. Work has since turned back to the horse’s head, and when I visit the team has blasted and driven nine of the 11 benches required to allow access to the carving face. “I see now what it’s taking to do the horse’s head. If we’d ever tried to do that first, we’d have failed, because we didn’t have the money, or the backing, or anything to show that we could do it.”

One thing Ruth has not changed is Korczak’s attitude towards state and federal funding. I ask her to explain to me why that decision still makes sense today. “It makes more sense today than it ever did,” she says. “Korczak was very independent. He said: ‘I couldn’t go to Washington and be a politician.’ And working at Rushmore, he learned a lot of things from Gutzon Borghum, whom he admired very much.” He saw Borghum have to leave the Black Hills and go to Washington and work with the politicians, “and entertain them, and lie to them, and he’d be there for two, three, four weeks at a time trying to raise money while the men who were working on the mountain didn’t have a dime for salaries. Korczak said: I just can’t do that. If this memorial should be built, the people of this country will pay for it. And it’s turned out to be the people of the world actually.” Fundraising has become more sophisticated since the opening of a dedicated office, but there is still a pleasing variety in contributions, from the woman in Alaska who gives a dollar a month to the man from Kentucky “who left us everything he owned. It was a hundred and something thousand dollars.” Then there was the local entrepreneur T Denny Sanford, who set up a matching grant of up to $5 million through which he will match anyone’s donation.

I ask if the approach to fundraising is what’s made the progress so slow, or if it would have needed to be this way anyway. “Well, you know, it can’t be in a big rush. But you can do more with the money.”

When I visit, the priority of the moment is once again invisible: a process that Monique later talks me through in her cavernous, well-equipped studio filled with sculpture and another scale model of the memorial. She has been mapping the mountain to work out exactly how the sculpture will fit within it – “making sure the model and the mountain work together,” as Ruth puts it – and, in particular, establishing that the rock is strong enough where it needs to be. “We really need the rock mechanics to make sure that, as we blast it out and carve it, we don’t kick off a piece that we need up there, where it falls off because it isn’t supported properly.” These days they have the technology to scan the mountain and put it together with the model in computers. “It’s understanding the rock mass,” Monique says. “Where all the seam lines are, where the mountain is going to be carved, the horse’s mane, the horse’s ear, where the undercuts are. It’s understanding if we have to bolt any of those, because if you’re going to take rock out from underneath it, you want to make sure it’s going to stay there.” This is something that Korczak himself could never do – or perhaps he did. “People said you need to core drill the mountain. He said, I did. I’ve got a core drill that goes all the way through it.” He meant the tunnel.

This expensive work is partly a consequence of the Sanford donation, and also his hopes for the project. “He said: I want my grandchildren to see this finished, but I want to see that horse’s head,” Ruth explains. “He said: I could give you the $5 million, but I want you to make plans and I want you to double it.” And will the money increase the speed? “Certainly.”

Is it realistic that Sanders, who was born in 1935, could be around to see the horse’s head complete? “Oh, I think so. He’s nowhere near as old as I am, and I want to see it.”

With the best will in the world, I doubt it, but Ruth has been ignoring doubts for 65 years and smiles evenly.

“You know, people say: when’s it going to be finished? Well, in the first place, what’s ‘it’? “ she says. “If you’re talking about just the mountain, that’s different from the university and the medical training centre and al those things. Does finished mean carved out, or polished, and every part of the horse’s mane finished?”

There are so many elements to it, she says. There’s a bare-chested human being up there whose skin will be depicted and polished in the same way as the face. “But how are you going to finish the horse’s hide? It’s different from a human being’s. But if you had to sit down and answer all these things before you ever started we’d still be talking about it. We wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.”

One part of the project which has reached a form of completion is the university. A scholarship fund has been up and running for some time, and had brought in more than $1.2 million by the time I visited, probably much more now. Sanford provided money to start the building, and, when I came in early, snowy 2010, they were about to start classes that June with a curriculum whose development was done in association with the University of South Dakota.

From time to time as I talk with Ruth, we are politely interrupted by visitors wanting to talk to her and thank her. You have a fan club, I say. “People are very, very kind, they really are,” she says. She seems a happy woman, and is, after all, surrounded by family; at the time, seven of the 10 children were actively involved in some part of the project, and the other three lived within four miles (sadly one daughter, Anne, died in 2011). Son Casimer is the foreman of the mountain carving crew, Jadwiga is EVP for the memorial foundation, Adam works on the building and grounds and raises cattle, Mark is the forester; they all have roles. Monique tells me her daughter, Heidi, is cutting rock bases and candles for sale in the gift shop, and shortly before my visit a great grandchild has worked in the shop, marking the beginning of the fourth generation’s involvement. At the time of my visit there were 23 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren; quite a labour force to call upon for the future.

Most large families scatter a little, I say; how is it that even those who aren’t still involved have stayed local? “They left, but they came back,” says Ruth. “Every one of the 10 went somewhere to see what was on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Some of them came back to work, and three of them came back to Custer.” She smiles. “It’s nice.”

Not everyone likes the idea of the Crazy Horse memorial, for a number of different reasons.

One is environmental: the idea that it is OK to blow up an entire mountain for an artistic pursuit, though in a state with a long history of income from mining, that’s a complaint that’s rarely voiced.

A more contentious issue is that many Native Americans, including some from the Lakota people of whom Crazy Horse was a member, don’t like the idea at all, pointing out that Crazy Horse himself, like many Native American elders, did not want to be photographed and would therefore hardly have liked to have his image immortalised in 500 feet of rock. Two widely quoted comments are from the Lakota medicine man John Fire Lame Deer, who wrote that “the whole idea of making a beautiful wild mountain into a statue of him is a pollution of the landscape [and] against the spirit of Crazy Horse”, and the Lakota activist Russell Means, who said it was like going to the Holy Land and carving up the mountain of Zion. “It’s an insult to our entire being.” The whole enterprise was of course commissioned by a Native American, Standing Bear, but even that has proven controversial; Crazy Horse’s descendent Elaine Quiver said in 2003 that he shouldn’t have done so and that the descendants weren’t asked first. The Black Hills, she said, weren’t “meant to be carved into images, which is very wrong for all of us.”

The idea of Crazy Horse pointing with his index finger is also problematic, as many Native American cultures consider doing this taboo. (The idea of Crazy Horse pointing was that he was responding to a, perhaps mythical, derisive question by a white man who asked him: “Where are your lands now?” He replied: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.” This is what he is pointing to: burial lands. Also, Korczak always said he was not carving a likeness of Crazy Horse himself, but a memorial to his spirit.)

Still others have a problem with the fact that the memorial provides lucrative employment for so many family members, who are under no incentive to go any faster to complete the monument, and who undergo no government oversight because of the refusal to accept federal funding.

When I put the objections to Ruth, she smiles and nods. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Native Americans or Caucasians or what it is, you never please everyone,” she says. “Since Standing Bear and the Indian people here asked Korczak to carve the mountain, you have to be absolutely definite and set in your belief and your goal that you are going to do it.

“One of the unfortunate things was that Standing Bear passed away very early on in the project [in 1953] and this was his project. When he passed away, we had to start all over again to make friends on the reservation, and that made it very difficult. But there has never been a doubt in the world that it should be done: you just try to do it with as much dignity and respect for Indian ways as we can, but not to the degree that it hinders or stops the progress.” She says that the scholarship helped to change attitudes considerably, once people could see that they were going to benefit from it. “There are three or four die-hards who are never going to change no matter what we do, because the only thing that would please them is if we stopped working and put it back together. I’m sorry it’s that way, I’d like to please all Native Americans, but it doesn’t work.”

Today, the whole thing is a mighty operation, even though nobody who ever visits the attraction today will live to see it completed. It has been visited by presidents, most enthusiastically by Bill Clinton, who turned up more or less unannounced one evening and pretty much refused to leave. “About 10.30 in the evening, we were just getting closed, and in comes this parade of cars. He could not have been more pleasant: he was so knowledgeable about the Indian people it was amazing.” The Secret Service flatly refused to let anybody in or out, reasoning he was only going to be there 20 minutes; by a quarter past midnight they began to ask him if he wouldn’t mind leaving. “What I didn’t know at the time was that out at the parking lot was a bus full of newspaper people and the TV. If I’d known I’d have sent them beer and sandwiches.” She calculated that, given his commitments the next day, Clinton can’t have had more than three hours sleep as a consequence of his visit. “The Secret Service guys said: please don’t offer to take him up the mountain. We’re scared he’ll say yes.”

Ruth looks with pride at the monument today and says: “I really don’t know when it was all accomplished.” You can’t help but smile at that: it’s been 65 years and there’s only the slightest single part of it that looks complete. The family won’t be drawn on a timescale for the whole thing, but 200 years does not sound unreasonable.

Ruth writes to her legions of followers in March 2014 to say she is recovering from cancer. “Trials are part of our journey through life,” she writes. She has always known she won’t be there to see the thing complete, but the passing from one generation to the next is increasingly apparent.

Whoever the president of the USA will be when the whole thing is finished, they’re not yet born. It’s the sort of timeframe within which one can sadly but legitimately wonder if there will still be Native Americans left to honour.

When it happens, though, when the man is complete, his horse frozen in action beneath him, five hundred feet of stone carved to a single image, one imagines that some distant descended Ziolkowksi will be in charge. And they will point to an image of their bearded ancestor, who said, a long time ago: “Only in America could a man carve a mountain.”

Ruth Ziolkowski died in 2014.

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