Crazy Horse

Shelley's poem Ozymandias tells of the wreck of a huge rock sculpture which stands in the desert above the inscription: ''Look on my works ye mighty and despair.'' ''Nothing beside remains,'' the poet tells us. ''Boundless and bare the lone and level sands stretch far away.''

A thousand years from now, when the US empire has crumbled into dust and climate change has cleared beef cattle and farmers from the western prairie, it is possible to imagine that tourists will travel across the sand to visit the mountains of South Dakota and marvel at the massive monuments of a bygone civilisation.

They will wonder how a race so comparatively primitive could have managed to create Mount Rushmore. It is the American Sphinx, four presidential heads looming from the side of a 6000ft mountain. A mountain named, poignantly enough, for a New York City attorney who discovering, in the 1880s, that it had no official name, decided to give it his own. A subsequent donation to sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s project helped to keep it that way. A suitable enough beginning for a shrine to enterprise culture indeed.

Each night, in a patriotic ceremony that the brochure promises will ”bring a tear to the eye” a film is shown honouring the four ”pathfinders”: George Washington; Thomas Jefferson; Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The punters vote on their favourite – Lincoln always wins – and The Star Spangled Banner is played while fireworks and floodlights illuminate the famous four. Interestingly, the crowd, despite being urged to sing along, mumbles through it with unexpected embarrassment.

In this July 4 week, one of the biggest holiday weeks in the US calendar, the auditorium is full to bursting each night with pilgrims, virtually all American, some in stars-and-stripes T-shirts, come to see the ”few feet of stone that bears witness to the great things we accomplished as a nation”, in the words of Borglum.

In the flesh, it is a grand but surprisingly beautiful structure, seeming to fit in with the natural contours of the landscape and to emerge from the mountain with a certain simplicity. But it is not the only show in town. Round the corner is a work in progress that, when it is finished, will dwarf Rushmore. It is the massive rock monument to native American hero Crazy Horse.

Begun in 1939 by Polish immigrant Korczak Ziolkowski at the request of a Sioux chief, as a response to Rushmore, to show the white man that the native Americans had heroes, too, all four 60ft presidents could fit into this one 600ft rock sculpture. Ziolkowski struggled more or less alone with the project, with little funding and few tools for the next half-century and, on his death in 1982, almost nothing of the work was visible. But since then, his widow, Ruth Ross, and their 10 children, armed with three plan books and a plaster scale model, have taken it over and have blasted away more than one million tons of rock.
The family decided to open the partially completed site five years ago and plough the entrance fee into the work and a not-for-profit foundation which funds native Americans through college.

It’s a laudable enterprise and one wants to like it, but, in a sense, it seems to have got out of hand. It is hugely ambitious, making Rushmore look small. The Lakota warrior is being sculpted sitting on his horse, pointing into the distance and saying, as he did after the battle of Little Big Horn: ”My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The pointing arm is 200ft long and one of the difficulties the family has encountered is clearing the space under it. A large window has been opened up under it, but a crack seems to have run up into the arm. This tricky section was adorned the day we visited with an enormous banner reading ”Happy Birthday Ruth”.

Having refused federal funding more than once, as they did not want the interference, the Ziolkowskis are free to do as they wish and the whole experience has something of an eccentric flavour. Far from seeming to emerge from the mountain, the work has completely decimated it. Pictures of the work in progress show entire sections of it being blasted into oblivion. In some parts, the mountain is hundreds of feet lower than it was 10 years ago. As this and all the other Black Hills were sacred to the Lakota Sioux, one wonders what Crazy Horse would have thought of it all.

Additionally, the orientation film at the memorial says very little – in fact, virtually nothing – about Crazy Horse. It is entirely devoted to commemorating the memory of the bushy-bearded sculptor and his heroic battle with the mountain, starting with one jack hammer and a dodgy generator all alone, climbing 700 steps to start work and then having to come down again to kick the generator into life, sometimes several times. He is shown gradually being joined by his five sons, while Ruth and their five daughters ran the house and entertained visitors, presumably drumming up donations. An eclectic museum at the site displays items which were mostly gifts from native Americans and the orientation film reveals that much of the dynamite has been given by sympathisers.
Leaving the strange creation, we overheard a mother telling her child: ”No, I don’t know what his horse was called.” Perhaps, looking at the finished creation in a thousand years, visitors will ask: ”So who was the guy on the crazy horse?”

The Scottish Herald
July 3rd 2002