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Face to face with Crazy Horse

Standing near the top of a 582-foot mountain carving, I enjoyed a view that few people ever get.

Most travelers to the Black Hills of South Dakota make time to visit Mount Rushmore, the famous mountain carving depicting the faces of four American presidents. Not far away, though, another mountain carving project is underway — at Crazy Horse memorial, a dedicated family has been working on a giant sculpture of Lakota Sioux chief Crazy Horse since 1947. As a journalist, I got a special trip to the top of the mountain, where I came face to face with the large granite head of Crazy Horse, and walked out along his arm to a breathtaking view of a Black Hills valley below.

Korczak Ziolkowski began carving this mountain more than 60 years ago, at the inviation of Lakota tribal elders, in order to memorialize the Native American traditions of the area. Since then, Korczak married his wife Ruth, had a gaggle of children, and passed away. Ruth and most of the children continue the slow work of mountain carving, now using controlled dynamite blasts to slowly chip away at the mountain. Today, Crazy Horse’s face is finished, and his hand and oustretched arm are beginning to take shape. Someday, when the entire sculpture is finished, the mountain will depict the cheif from the waist up, mounted on horseback, with his hand pointing to the land ‘where my dead lie buried.’

The memorial is a labor of love for the Ziolkowski family, who work on donations and have never taken a dollar of government funding. Though there’s no telling how long it will take to finish the sculpture (the pace of the work depends soley on funding), the fact that the project has continued for so long is tribute in itself, both to the legacy of the Native Americans in South Dakota and to the family’s embrace of their patriarch’s passionate project.

Though the actual sculpture is a work in progress, there is still plenty for groups to do at the visitor center, which sits about a mile away from the mountain. An introductory video gives an overview of the project, and museums and galleries on the premises showcase some of the best Native American arts and crafts from around the area.

Pay a visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial, and you can’t help but to be moved by the honor of the Lakota people and the determination of the Ziolkowski family… even if you don’t get a special opportunity to stand on the mountain itself.


The Crazy Horse Memorial slowly takes shape about a mile away from the visitors center.


A small model of Korczak’s vision at the visitors center shows what the mountain scultupre will look like when finsihed.


Posing for picture at the end of the outstretched arm.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.