Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse: Sometimes, Government Does it Better

Earlier this month my family visited the Black Hills of South Dakota, a fantastic destination one long day’s drive from Chicago. The highlight of the trip was hiking to the top of Harney Peak, but close behind were visits to two mountain monuments just a few miles apart: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

Mount RushmoreEveryone knows Mount Rushmore—those four stoic faces staring out from the granite are one of the most familiar sights on the planet. Travelers from all over the world fly into Seattle and Minneapolis and Denver, then ride buses for a day or more just to marvel for a couple of hours.

Crazy Horse ProfileAnd Crazy Horse?

It might be just as famous someday. Check back in 2213.

They Ought to Call it “Crazy Sculptor”

In 1948, responding to the completion and instant popularity of Mount Rushmore, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear appealed to Boston-based sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a monument that would honor Native American heritage. They conceived a symbolic likeness of never-photographed Chief Crazy Horse, pointing from atop his horse to the lands his people once roamed freely, that would dwarf Rushmore.

They sought no Federal funds, which made perfect sense, considering the atrocities The United States government perpetrated against the Lakota and other nations. Problem was, for the first 50 years or so, they barely had any funds at all.

The mountain in 1948.

In the welcome center video, Ziolkowski recounts climbing hundreds of stairs daily, in all weather, starting and restarting a balky compressor just to drill holes for the dynamite. It takes some kind of crazy artist gene to commit so fully to a project so colossal with such meager resources, but Ziolkowski took crazy to new heights, so to speak. In 36 years of carving, he never took a salary.

When Ziolkowski died in 1982, all he had accomplished was to blast away a chunk of mountaintop the size of a small office building. Crazy Horse didn’t even have a face.

Hard to Put a Good Face on the Progress

The face was unveiled in 1999, and since then Ziolkowski’s family has bored a tunnel through the rock—which will become the space between Crazy Horse’s arm and the horse’s mane—and completed some preliminary work on the pointing finger and the horse’s head.

The Crazy Horse Memorial today

That’s it.

Now, I admire the sheer bigness of this undertaking—my family and I were especially wowed seeing the face lit by night—and I realize that even the tiniest detail requires blasting away tons of granite with razor precision. It’s not like building a bridge or laying a highway.

But how many more generations of Lakota will die before Crazy Horse is complete?

Is Crazy Horse Just a Scam?

The non-profit Crazy Horse Memorial no longer lacks for funds, charging visitors $27 per car (more than twice Rushmore’s fees) and collecting millions in donations and corporate sponsorships. The family claims to have repeatedly turned down government assistance, insisting that taking the Feds’ money would give the Feds too much power to hurry the project along.

Ya think?

Some people claim the whole thing’s a scam, with the Ziolkowski family gouging tourists for millions with no intention of making any more progress carving the mountain.

I hope not. But I do get the feeling their aversion to Federal involvement now has less to do with dishonoring the Lakota, and more to do with honoring some right-wing, we-don’t-need-no-government-telling-us-what-to-do agenda. Why else end the incredibly cheesy laser show with Lee Greenwood’s cornball flag-waver,“God Bless the USA”?

Hey, I’m usually all for private enterprise and a hands-off government. But the Feds finished Mount Rushmore in 14 years with pre-WWII equipment. At the current rate, even with state-of-the-art engineering and blasting gear, Crazy Horse won’t be done for another 200.

Sometimes, government just does it better.

Image credits:,,,

6 thoughts on “Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse: Sometimes, Government Does it Better

  1. America gave Japan amazing assistance after WWII due to the use of the bomb. Many Holocaust families and survivors received money after the war as well. Paying after you won does not wipe away the tragedy of innocent people’s deaths.

    Our country’s history is tied up neatly in a package and marketed, but we have a history starting with the Native Americans then African Americans in slavery, Japanese internment camps and McCarthyism, of treating people pretty poorly. I have friends who are Native American, and sitting and talking with them is eye-opening. I can understand not wishing to take money from someone who has put their arm around you after horrible atrocities.

    On the other hand, we don’t live in the time when it took 500 years to complete the pyramids. With modern tools and a plan it would seem the monument could be finished a lot more quickly, and one wonders if the reason for the slow work is some other more common ailment such as poor budgeting, lack of focus, management issues, etc.

  2. Interesting article, Jeff. Thanks! My wife and I visited Crazy Horse 2 years ago (and drove by Rushmore but didn’t stop). One does wonder if they will ever finish, at their current rate. A few contextualizing comments, though: the faces of Mount Rushmore are 60 feet high. Crazy Horse’s face is 87 feet high. When completed, Crazy Horse will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high, so 9 times as tall as Rushmore. Comparisons of size aside, the folks working on Crazy Horse are somewhat stuck with their current setup, as any significant, acknowledged government or even corporate contribution would most likely effect their tourist efforts quite negatively.

  3. Great story. Just heard about the Sitting Bull monument from a friend who visited this summer.

    Sent from my iPhone

    On Aug 27, 2013, at 9:58 AM, We’re Not Expecting Any Surprises wrote: Jeff Segal posted: “Earlier this month my family visited the Black Hills of South Dakota, a fantastic destination one long days drive from Chicago. The highlight of the trip was hiking to the top of Harney Peak, but close behind were visits to two mountain monuments just a “

  4. You make a great point, Jeff! My family and I also visited those monuments probably in 05 or so when I was in middle school. I definitely remember seeing the amazing sights, but I don’t remember too much detail of the history that they made available at those locations because I was younger. Which is why I’m glad you gave a recap of what happened/is happening with the Crazy Horse Memorial. And I agree with you that in a situation like this, government just does it better. I (think) I understand where the Crazy Horse supporters are coming from, but at this point, why not let the government try to help? At least with the building aspect. I’m sure “the government” would feel that it would be a good way to give back, and by finally completing the project it would allow others to really enjoy the Crazy Horse Memorial to the fullest, as it should be.

    • My wife made the point that there’s some value in visiting an on-going project, since you can come back every few years and see what’s changed. But someone who was there for the face unveiling in 1999 would come back today and say, “Oh boy, in the last 14 years they made a hole in the mountain.” The pace of this project just doesn’t hold enough promise.

  5. I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial in 1968 while on a motorcycle trip through the Badlands and the Black Hills. Nearly fifty years later, it looks pretty much the same. I remember contributing to the effort, but hoped my grandchildren would see the finished sculpture. Not a chance of that happening, since my granddaughter is older now than I was when I saw it. And she’s a sculptor! Maybe she could help move that project along.

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