When Gutzon Borglum was working on the sculptures of the four American presidents on Mount Rushmore in the 1930s, a group of Indians had another idea of who should be honored in the sacred mountains of the Black Hills, in the state of South Dakota. .
It was Crazy Horse, leader of the Oglala Lakota and one of the strategists of the greatest victory against the American military in the war against the natives of the Plains in the second half of the 19th century. But because Borglum didn’t listen, the group went after another sculptor, who started new work on the mountain in 1948.
And, to date, work is under construction, just 17 miles from Mount Rushmore. Chief Oglala’s fearless face is now complete and stands 27 meters tall, nearly 10 feet taller than the sculpted faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
The Crazy Horse sculpture set, which depicts him astride a horse and his arm stretched out towards the horizon, should however measure over 172 meters high and 195 meters wide, a Herculean task with no end in sight. Mount Rushmore is also considered unfinished: it predicted presidents to the waist, but the work would be completed for lack of funds due to World War II.
“My fellow bosses and I would like the white man to know that the Redskins also have great heroes,” wrote Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, referring to the sculpture of the presidents when he asked the artist Korczak Ziolkowski, who had worked for him, for help in Rushmore with Borglum and will spend the rest of his life devoting himself to the Indian cause.
Ziolkowski, a Boston American and son of Pole, died in 1982 without seeing the granite mountain transformed into the face of Crazy Horse. The work was left to his family, who take care of the space, now a cultural center with a museum of indigenous art, a school and a restaurant.
It was Ziolkowski’s wife, Ruth, who changed her husband’s plans to build the horse first. She started working on the face in 1988, and the construction was completed in ten years. Ruth passed away in 2014, and her daughter Monique is the current president of Crazy Horse Memorial, a nonprofit foundation that refuses to use federal and state government funds. The money comes from donations and a ticket of about US $ 30 per vehicle. “That’s what everyone wants to know: when will he be ready? But we explain to visitors that it is more than just a carved mountain. It’s more of the heritage of the Native American people, ”says Tom Wilson, 81, who has worked as a museum guide since 2003.
Wilson was there in 1948, accompanied by his parents, when the first explosions began to work on the mountain. He met the Ziolkowskis and remembers how the family used coffee cups to collect coins for the project. “He was a fascinating character, very tall and with a Boston accent that I had never heard before,” he said.
Since 2015, there have been no more explosions on the mountain. Other more modern techniques are used, and the Crazy Horse’s outstretched arm is expected to be completed in four years. The horse should take another 30 years. A team of 14 people are working on the excavation, including two of Ziolkowski’s grandchildren.
Indigenous communities in the region consider the mountain range to be sacred land because they believe their beings were born from the opening of the Cave of the Wind, 60 km from the memorial. In an 1868 treaty, the federal government promised the area to Indigenous peoples, but the discovery of gold knocked out the deal.
It is not possible to know exactly what Crazy Horse, who died in 1877, looked like as he refused to be photographed. Still, tourist stores and museums across the United States sell postcards with her purported black and white portrait. “Experts have determined that there was no picture of the Crazy Horse. He thought those black boxes from the photographers would steal his eyeshadow, he didn’t trust the white man, ”Wilson explains. “Ziolkowski spoke a lot with the elders of the tribe. With the descriptions and his artistry, he created this image which also represents all of the indigenous people.
At the cultural center, there are cultural performances three times a day and weekly lectures on contemporary issues and indigenous traditions. Once a month, an artist is invited to exhibit, and the works are on sale to visitors. And what started with a $ 250 Indigenous scholarship in 1978 is now an eight-week academic program in partnership with state universities. In 12 years, more than 300 students have passed through the center, which has distributed more than $ 2 million in scholarships.
FIELDS OF MASSACRE AND VICTORY
Many of the Crazy Horse Memorial students are from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, less than 100 km away and one of the 326 reserves in the United States, self-governing territories ruled by the council. The country has 6.8 million Native Americans (2% of the population), but 80% live on reservations, which tend to have high unemployment and low life expectancy.
Pine Ridge, with less than 20,000 residents, is in the poorest county in the United States and was the scene of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, when around 300 Lakota were murdered after an unsuccessful attempt at the army to disarm them after decades of confiscation of their land. promised in the treaty.
To make matters worse, Sitting Bull, head of Hunkpapa Lakota and colleague of Crazy Horse, had been killed while reacting to the arrest days earlier. Local forces feared he would join a new movement called Ghost Dance, performed at Pine Ridge, a ritual that developed among the tribes and scared off the settlers.
Its leaders promised a new era with the end of American expansion westward, the return of ancestors and buffaloes wiped out by predatory white hunting. Their supporters also believed in magical shirts that would protect them from bullets, which didn’t help when the shooting started.
To visit Pine Ridge, it is necessary to go through a traffic check, register the vehicle, and report the reason for the visit due to the pandemic. Unlike the great American pomp for historic sites, the massacre site only has a large poster telling the story in small print, in a roadside parking lot. A woman next to the poster was trying to sell her handicrafts and pointed the reporter to a hill where the murdered natives were buried.
The cemetery of tall grass and poorly maintained ditches overlooks the green plains of the reserve.
Ironically, the opposite is true at the site of the US military’s worst defeat in the Indian Wars, the Battle of Little Bighorn, 14 years before Wounded Knee. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull helped the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes defeat the cavalry of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, the same who discovered gold in the Black Hills and started the advance towards Indian lands.
One hundred and fifty kilometers from the Crazy Horse Memorial is the Battle of Little Bighorn National Monument in Montana on the Crow Indian Reservation, a rival Lakota tribe who aided Custer’s forces. The monument sits in a pristine 735-acre park, with marked trails through bucolic pastures. There are signs with detailed explanations of each troop advance over the two days of combat.
In the end, Custer’s 263 men were wiped out in less than an hour by more than 3,000 natives.
The dead are buried in the park, their white gravestones strewn across fields now frequented by wild horses. The following year, 1877, Crazy Horse would surrender to American troops, but would eventually die for allegedly resisting arrest.
Outside the park, a store sells Indigenous crafts from various communities across the country, such as pearl and leather moccasins for $ 900, as well as postcards featuring the fake Crazy Horse portrait.