Before heading to Mt. Rushmore and Badlands National Park, I spent several days in and around Custer which is located in the Black Hills National Forest. It would be a few days before I realized the significance of this area.
In 1868, the U.S. government had signed a treaty with the Sioux Indians recognizing that the Black Hills were sacred to the Sioux (specifically, the Oglala Lakota, a subtribe of the Great Sioux Nation) and would be included in the Great Sioux Reservation where the tribe had agreed to settle. However, less than six years later an expedition was led through the Black Hills by General George A. Custer in search of gold. When they found what they came for, White Americans soon began crossing into the Black Hills and the Lakota retaliated. Both of whom were in violation of the treaty. The U.S. government attempted to bargain with the Lakota and give them some other land outside of the Black Hills that had no meaning or use to the Lakota but they were not having any of that. So what did the U.S. government do? They deemed the Sioux “hostile”, broke the treaty and claimed the Black Hills as its own. This was just one of the many conflicts that led to The Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand (remember that U.S. history class back in high school?).
On the way to Mt. Rushmore I stopped at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Crazy Horse was a prominent Oglala Lakota war leader, highly respected and loved by his people. He fought to defend his people and their way of life and was one of the major leaders in The Battle of the Little Bighorn. A few years after the project of Mt. Rushmore was underway, Henry Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief, sought to have a monument of Crazy Horse sculpted into the Black Hills. After nearly a decade of reaching out to different people to create the mountain sculpture, including Gutzon Borglum, the lead sculptor of Mt. Rushmore, it wasn’t until he wrote to Korczak Ziolkowski, an assistant sculptor on Mt. Rushmore that Standing Bear’s wishes would be answered. Ziolkowski spent three weeks with the Standing Bear and the Lakota, learning about their culture and traditions and soon made it his life’s purpose to sculpt the monument. The Crazy Horse sculpture was to be 563ft high and 641ft wide. In comparison, all four Presidents’ heads at Mt. Rushmore could fit in Crazy Horse’s head alone. Interestingly, there are no photos of Crazy Horse. He refused to have his photo taken which was the White man’s culture. So, all that history has to go on is from people’s own accounts of how they described him which have all been very similar.
The first blast on the mountain happened in 1948 when Ziolkowski was 40 years old and he continued working up until his death 34 years later. The conditions he initially lived in and the hardships he endured during the early years were remarkable and yet he stayed completely devoted to the task. He and his wife had ten children. When Ziolkowski died, his family took on the project as their own with most of them running the Visitor’s Center, the gift shop, the restaurant, working on the sculpture itself or in the designing and planning of it.
Standing Bear was adamant about not funding this project with federal money and so the non-profit Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation was created. Since its start, they have built the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center and the Indian University of North America.
In 1998, Crazy Horse’s face was revealed and remains a work in progress.
A few days later I drove through the Badlands National Park. What I was unaware of prior to visiting the park was that it has been an important geological site in that they have discovered tons of fossils of ancient animals here such as the dog, horse, rhino, and many others. They’ve even found water inhabiting creatures like the alligator since it was once all under water.