Almost everybody has heard of the Mount Rushmore National Monument, constructed in the Black Hills of South Dakota, by Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum, and his son, Lincoln Borglum, from 1935-1941. This national memorial, considered by some as America’s Shrine of Democracy, features the faces of four prominent former US presidents and measures 60 feet (18 meters) tall and 185 feet (56 meters) wide, from Washington’s right ear to Lincoln’s left ear.
While all this may be true, there also exists a lesser-known national monument, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Crazy Horse National Monument. This tribute to Native American culture and way of life depicts Oglala Lakota chief and hero, Tasunka Witco, referred to as Crazy Horse throughout American history.
Tasunka Witco is revered by his people as a symbol of resistance against the US government’s efforts to “remove” Native Americans from their land. The Native American icon died young struggling to preserve the traditions and way of life of his people. His death remains controversial and there is uncertainty regarding the actual events that led up to his tragic death. During his surrender at Fort Robinson, Tasunka Witco died from bayonet wounds by a US soldier on September 5, 1877.
Tasunka Witco’s ill-fated death was one of the many aspects of his life that added to the legitimacy of his status as a mythical legend for the Native American people. Witco’s reputation as a cunning and fearless warrior, along with his unconditional dedication to his people, and preservation of their sovereignty, has made him a well-known figure in Native American and US history. This may be why he was chosen to symbolize the greatness of the Lakota people by Chief Mato Naji, (Henry Standing Bear) for the memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Chief Naji eventually commissioned Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to build the Crazy Horse Memorial.
A major reason why Chief Naji felt justified in including Crazy Horse on the Mount Rushmore Memorial, is that Borglum’s sculpture of the presidents’ faces is located in the Black Hills. These mountains are considered sacred territory and a religious landmark to the Lakota tribe. The California Gold Rush and the spread of white settlement eventually resulted in the US government forcing the Lakota tribe onto reservations and taking possession of the Lakota land including the Black Hills. The irony of the Mount Rushmore Memorial with the faces of the four US presidents forever desecrating sacred Lakota lands has been a bone of contention for many of the Lakota and Sioux people. The Mount Rushmore Memorial was an offensive symbol to the Lakota and Sioux Native Americans as the monument celebrates European settlers who killed so many of their people and appropriated their land.
Ziolkowski at that time was working with Borglum, to sculpt Mount Rushmore. Ziolkowski’s familiarity of the Black Hills due to his experience working on Mount Rushmore and also his award for first prize for a marble sculpture in an International art fair in 1939 were major reasons for why he was recruited by the Native chief to construct the Crazy Horse Monument. Chief Naji’s famous line that persuaded Ziolkowski to pursue this feat was a proclamation stating that, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the White man to know that the Red man has great heroes, too."
There are rumors as to whether Witco resisted the arrest when he saw that he would be confined to the walls of the prison house, or if the soldier secretly stabbed him in the back, despite Witco’s peaceful acquiescence. The one common element from most historical accounts describes Tasunka Witco’s death as painful and slow from the mortal bayonet wound, as he suffered for many hours, before he succumbed to his injuries and died in the middle of the night.
The Chief’s older half-brother Ota Kte, (Luther Standing Bear) initially wrote of the idea of adding the face of Crazy Horse as part of the Mount Rushmore Monument in one of his books, which were written during the time frame of the Rushmore carving. There are differing accounts as to whether Chief Naji or Kte wrote the letter to Gutzon Borglum requesting that he include Crazy Horse as one of the faces for the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Borglum never responded.
Chief Naji responded to Borglum’s lack of response to his insistence of including Tasunka Witco in the Mount Rushmore Monument, by campaigning for the next decade to construct a Crazy Horse National Monument. In 1939, Chief Naji wrote a letter to Ziolkowski, appointing him to give rise to his dream of building the Crazy Horse Monument to carry on the spirit of his people. Depictions of the letter can now be seen at Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
Chief Naji also wrote a letter to Undersecretary Oscar Chapman, of the Department of the Interior offering to exchange his own 900 acres of fertile land in exchange for the barren mountain on which the Crazy Horse Memorial was to be built. The US government agreed to grant a permit for the use of the land, with a commission to oversee the project. Standing Bear chose not to receive aid from government funds, and instead relied on private funders who were interested in the welfare of the Native American people.
Chief Naji’s efforts to resurrect the courageous Lakota hero, Crazy Horse as a national monument to honor the culture, tradition, and living heritage of the Northern Native people finally proved fruitful. In 1948 the construction of the Crazy Horse National Monument officially commenced with the first blast of explosives igniting on May 3rd. The construction of this memorial is still underway in South Dakota after 64 years and currently has no set date for the completion of the project. This might be a result of the sheer physical size of the actual sculpture. The Crazy Horse Memorial currently stands taller than the Washington Monument and is over the length of 2 football fields wide. Upon completion this monument will be the world’s largest sculpture, at 563 feet tall and 641 feet long. This towering statue would be three times the height of Niagara Falls, and larger than the Pyramid of Giza. The Crazy Horse Monument would dwarf the Mount Rushmore Monument at four times the size of the previous structure.
The Crazy Horse figure would depict the upper torso of the Lakota hero mounted on a horse with his arm outstretched, pointing in response to the White man’s question, “Where are your lands now?” To which Tasunka Witco replied, “My Lands Are Where My Dead Lie Buried.” This saga continues as there are many controversies concerning the Crazy Horse Memorial, these will be discussed in a follow up blog post.