On its face, a South Dakota monument is a tribute to the great Sioux leader Crazy Horse, but it's also a testament to the outsized dream of its creator.

SPIRITS IN STONE

June 04, 1998|By ROB HIAASEN | ROB HIAASEN,SUN STAFF

CRAZY HORSE, S.D. -- "I woke up this morning and prayed to God," said Marinka Ziolkowski. "Don't let 50 years of hard work be lost in the fog."

The fog, in fact, did a slow burn-off, the overnight snow flopped off the trees, and by mid-morning on the coldest June 3 on record here, an 87-foot-high granite face was unveiled before thousands of chilled visitors gathered to stare at it from a mile away.

It was the grand opening of the Crazy Horse Memorial, a massive monument to the great Sioux leader that Marinka's late father, Korczak Ziolkowski, had begun carving on another rainy and cold day 50 years before. Marinka, born 13 years into the project, drove from nearby Custer yesterday to see Crazy Horse's face revealed atop Thunderhead Mountain.

"The world asks only one question: Did you get the job done?" Marinka said. "And the only answer is: yes."

This axiom she learned from her father -- the artist, the taskmaster, the stubborn sculptor who loved oatmeal in the morning and Manhattans at night. And yesterday's Crazy Horse 50th anniversary was as much a tribute to Korczak as it was to the man whose stony face glares atop a 700-foot outcropping.

"We've come here to honor three men, three dreamers," said Dennis "Standing Bear" Compos, whose grandfather, Oglala chief Henry Standing Bear, first asked Korczak to build a monument to the Indians. The white men, after all, had Mount Rushmore.

So Standing Bear and Korczak decided to carve Crazy Horse's imagined likeness into these hills.

"I know in my heart the spirits of these three men are here today," Compos said.

In his lifetime, Crazy Horse was never photographed. But yesterday, his mountainous likeness loomed on a Jumbotron screen trucked in for the occasion. Then, the "mother of the Ziolkowski tribe," Ruth Ziolkowski, gave thanks to everyone who had contributed money or muscle to her husband's dream.

"As Korczak said," she told the shivering crowd, "trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle."

Then, by radio, she called to the men on the mountain to uncover Crazy Horse's face. On cue, the drape slithered perfectly off the 87-foot head, past the jutted nose, onto a heap of stone beneath the face of Tashunka Witko -- who the white man called Crazy Horse.

At that moment, Ruth Ziolkowski looked back at the cold sea of visitors. She might have seen her beaming daughter Marinka, whose father called her Cat Who Walks Alone. Marinka was standing, with everyone else. She flashed a thumbs-up sign to her mom, whose own voice had just broken in tears.

Slow progress

All in good time the Crazy Horse monument has come, is still coming. Patience, people. The mountain isn't going anywhere. And, if your beliefs are so inclined, The Great Spirit isn't in any hurry, either.

With distant interest, we all have waited. As children, we had read about a monument being carved to honor the masterful young Oglala leader, Crazy Horse, who defeated George Custer at Little Bighorn in the year of our nation's centennial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial, we read, would be carved out of South Dakota's Black Hills, a land the Indians called Paha Sapa, the place of holy mountains, great spirits and visions. The unveiling would come in 50 years. Our own children heard the story, too.

As adults, we vaguely tracked the story, stopping one Sunday to see on "60 Minutes" a progress report on the memorial. Then, other reports nicked our radar screen:

In 1989, the hairline of Crazy Horse's 32-foot forehead is finished; 1991, both eyes are opened; 1992, 27-foot nose is done (can fit a five-room house in one nostril!); in 1994, "The Famous Nose Blast" blows another 91 tons of pegmatite granite from a memorial in perpetual progress.

When finished, the story went, the Crazy Horse Memorial would be taller than the Washington Monument and larger than the largest Egyptian pyramid. The boys on Mount Rushmore would have blasted-rock envy.

Size does matter -- but not time, not in the world of mountain carving. And so, 50 years to the day since Korczak (CORE-jock) single-jacked four holes for the first blast into his mountain, surviving family members gathered with onlookers to see the completed face of the incomplete, 563-foot-high Crazy Horse Memorial.

Just the face, as the press releases remind. The rest is still to come, maybe in your child's lifetime.

Whose memorial is it?

"It's not really Crazy Horse's face. This has a very Polish look, to my eye," says Dee Brown, whose 1970 book "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West" is a landmark work of nonfiction.

Now 90, Brown remembers his visits to the Crazy Horse Memorial -- at least two visits since work began in 1948. "Wish I was going with you this time," he said last week from his home in Little Rock, Ark. What, he is asked, would Crazy Horse make of all this?

"I don't think he would care for the monument," Brown said. "He wouldn't know what it's all about."

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