The Legends Behind the Crazy Horse Memorial
Situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota lies the largest mountain sculpture in the world dedicated to the memory of one of history’s greatest warriors.
The face of the Lakota tribesman carved into the mountain is one of serenity and confidence, just as Crazy Horse was until his death in 1877. He rides his horse tall and stares into the great skies of the unknown future ahead. Like a rock, Crazy Horse still stands firm. The legend of the fierce warrior is bigger than what can be contained on a mountain. His spirit roams the hills beyond the fences.
In order to fully grasp the importance of his existence, one must listen closely to the sounds of history and the distant echo of war cries in the rocky cliffs.
Who Was Crazy Horse?
It wasn’t always bloodshed and battling between the Native Americans and the early settlers. In fact, there are several accounts of peaceful encounters in the Dakota area before the gold rush of 1874. The Sioux Indians were said to have helped Lewis and Clark on their expedition, and they even assisted the early French-Canadian fur trappers with their game. The terrain of South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana was designated by the U.S. government as Sioux territory.
Until gold was discovered, that is. Then everyone wanted a piece of the wealth. Miners and “homesteaders” came into the territory without any regard for whom the land belonged to. As more and more people flocked to the Black Hills, the government revoked the Treaty of Fort Laramie and took over the land.
Crazy Horse was a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He was born sometime between 1840 and 1845, and he lived during the period that animosity between the pioneers and the Native Americans was mounting. He became famous for being a strong warrior against enemy tribes, and was reported to have first killed a Shoshone Indian who had murdered a Lakota woman. In 1864, the Lakota and other tribes turned their forces against the U.S. military.
Perhaps Crazy Horse is best known for the Battle of Little Bighorn, or “Custer’s Last Stand,” but he took part in several other battles that led to the brutal history of early frontier life. He and his fellow tribesmen raided a wood-cutting camp in what became known as the Wagon Box Fight. In 1866, Crazy Horse took part in the Fetterman Massacre, which left all of the U.S. infantrymen involved dead. His reputation as a fierce fighter grew quickly.
Even though Crazy Horse saw his fair share of victory over the years, eventual defeat was inevitable. They were outnumbered and out-resourced. Crazy Horse and his fellow warriors arrived at the Red Cloud Agency in 1877 to prepare for their official surrender to the white man. They agreed to remain peaceful and adopt the settlers’ ways in exchange for their lives, but rumors lingered that Crazy Horse was not going to comply.
The arrest of Crazy Horse was ordered. While struggling to escape, he was stabbed by a bayonet belonging to one of the guards. The date was September 5, 1877. Today, the spirit of Crazy Horse lives on with the largest mountain carving in the world.
History of the Memorial
On June 3, 1948, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear dedicated a future Crazy Horse memorial to the memory of the great warrior. Ziolkowski was an experienced, prize-winning sculptor who was asked to move to South Dakota to assist with Mount Rushmore in 1939. At about this time, Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear was writing to Ziolkowski in the hopes to urge him to sculpt tributes to Native Americans.
A World War II veteran himself, Ziolkowski was invited to stay in Europe at the close of the war to create memorials for the soldier heroes. But Ziolkowski had other plans. He would instead devote the rest of his life to preserving the memory of Crazy Horse, and he arrived in the Black Hills on May 3, 1947. He continued to work on the project, pro bono, until his death in 1982.
Today, Henry Standing Bear and Ziolkowski’s dream lives on. Not only can visitors get a glimpse into the not-yet-completed Crazy Horse mountain silhouette, they can also stop at one of the many attractions the site has to offer.
Things to Do
Other than viewing the mountain sculpture, the Crazy horse memorial has a lot to offer. Here’s what to expect from your visit:
- The Indian Museum of North America
Want to know more about Native American life in the South Dakota region? Curious about Crazy Horse and his fellow tribesmen? Come check out the artifacts and art collections in the Indian Museum of North America. The rich culture and the rustic lifestyles of the original tribes are contained within these walls.
- Native American Education and Cultural Center
The Education and Cultural Center offers an unforgettable, hands-on experience that’s fun for everyone. You can build a tipi, visit local vendors, view the artifacts exhibits, or play games to gain a deeper understanding of the heritage of Native Americans.
- The Laughing Water Restaurant
The best way to make the most of your trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial is to continue your experience into your evening dinner. The Laughing Water Restaurant offers excellent views of the memorial and a top-notch cuisine. Don’t miss out on any sightseeing activities, even while you’re eating. Tatanka stew anyone?
And don’t forget to check out the gift shop on the way out so you can bring your Crazy Horse memories with you on your trip through the great state of South Dakota.
Crazy Horse: The Hope of a People
The hills of South Dakota are rich with a culture and history that transcends time. The more we work to preserve the heritage of the tribes who once ruled the land, the more we can pass down the values and the traditions of the region’s people. As the mission statement of the memorial states, harmony and reconciliation can be found in our efforts of preservation.
Location & Hours
The Crazy Horse Memorial entrance is along US Highway 16/385 (the Crazy Horse Memorial Highway) and is 9 miles south of Hill City, SD and 4 miles north of Custer, SD. Hours vary depending on the season, but from Memorial Day to mid-October, the park is open from 8 am until dark. After dark, the “Legends in Light” laser show on the mountain begins. For more information, please visit the homepage here.