While talking to my friend Bev a few months back about an upcoming tour to Wyoming and South Dakota, I told her I couldn't wait to see Mount Rushmore with my own eyes. "Be sure to check out Crazy Horse too," Bev advised. "It's only 17 miles from Mount Rushmore."
At the time I had no idea what Crazy Horse was. Luckily it was on our itinerary and turned out to be the highlight of the whole trip for me.
At the CH Memorial in South Dakota, I gazed in awe at the mountain where the sculpture of Lakota warrior Crazy Horse is literally a work in progress. Wanting to know more, I discovered that it was a true labor of love begun by Korczak Ziolkowski, a man who had known virtually no love during his formative years.
Korczak was born in Boston in l908 of Polish descent. Orphaned at age one, he was mistreated in a series of foster homes. One demanding foster father even forced him to do heavy construction work. This skill would actually serve him well in later years.
By age 16, Korczak was on his own. Though he never took an art or sculpture lesson in his life, he had a natural ability to work with his hands and from studying the masters began to carve pieces of plaster and clay.
As a young man, Korczak moved to West Hartford, Conn. This move was to be one of his pivotal life's decisions, for it was there that high school student Ruth Ross, 18 years his junior, would volunteer to help Korczak work on a sculpture of Noah Webster, which he gifted to the city. Years later, the two would connect in a much more meaningful way in South Dakota.
In 1939, Henry Standing Bear, a chief of the Lakota in South Dakota, read about Korczak. Standing Bear was impressed that Korczak had worked that year as an assistant on Mount Rushmore. In addition, the same year Korczak had won first prize at the NY World's Fair for his sculpture "Paderewski: Study of an Immortal."
Standing Bear invited Korczak to carve a mountain sculpture in the Black Hills of South Dakota, dedicated to the North American Indians. Crazy Horse, a brave and noble leader of the Lakota, killed in 1877, was chosen to represent the Native Americans. Standing Bear wrote to Korczak, "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too."
During the course of their meetings, one of which took place in Korczak's own home, a true friendship and feeling of affection developed between the two. In fact, Korczak later carved a mahogany sculpture of Standing Bear, which he gave to President John F. Kennedy. The sculptor promised to think about Standing Bear's offer. He actually thought about it for seven years, during which time he volunteered to serve his country in World War II.
In 1946, Korczak decided to accept the invitation, feeling strongly that the glories as well as the tragedies of the North American Indians should be remembered. It was this devotion to the Native Americans that motivated him to spend the rest of his life on the CH sculpture, working alone most of the time during the first 10 years. Old footage of Korczak at CH shows him going up and down 741 rickety wooden stairs throughout the day, doing backbreaking work on the mountain with primitive machines.
The next year, Ruth Ross from West Hartford arrived to volunteer for the project. The two later got engaged. Although he loved Ruth, Korczak told his fiancé, "The mountain will always come first, you will come second and family will come after that." Ruth agreed, and they were married in l950. The couple had 10 children, seven of whom still work on the CH project, along with many of their own children and even one great grandchild.
Although the US government offered on two separate occasions to contribute $10 million to the project, Korczak refused all government help, insisting that the people themselves owed the Indians this memorial.
Korczak died of acute pancreatitis in 1982, at age 74. His last words to his wife Ruth were, "You must work on the mountain — but go slowly, so you do it right." Today at age 84, Ruth continues to direct the day-to-day operations at CH.
When completed, the CH sculpture will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, the largest mountain carving and largest sculpture in the world. CH Memorial will also include an extensive museum of Indian heritage and a combination university and medical training center.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of the CH story is Korczak himself. Though essentially experiencing no real love growing up, he cared deeply: for Henry Standing Bear, for the American Indians, for his wife and their family and above all for the CH project. In his own way, Korczak was as noble as the Native American he carved.
Anyone who wants to make a tax-deductible contribution to the Crazy Horse project may go to crazyhorsemeorial.org. Donations may also be mailed to the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, 12151 Ave. of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730-8900.