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The spiritual and business leader of the Crazy Horse Memorial passed away on May 21, 2014.
Melanie and I felt honored to meet this humble woman on a visit to Crazy Horse:
Ruth has joined Korczak in eternity. When I think of them I am reminded of the quote from Arthur Schopenhauer:
The kings left their crowns and scepters behind here, and the heroes their weapons. Yet the great spirits among them all, whose splendor flowed out of themselves, who did not receive it from outward things, they take their greatness across with them.
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A year after the Battle of Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse’s vanquished followers relocated to the reservation. He alone remained free. Crazy Horse met a white trader who mocked him.
“Where are your lands now, Crazy Horse? Your people are captured and put on reservations. Where are your lands you fought for?”
Crazy Horse sat on his pony and said nothing for a long time. He just stared at the white trader. He raised his arm slowly and pointed out over his horse’s head to the east and said proudly, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
That same day Crazy Horse went to Fort Robinson in Nebraska under a flag of truce. He was stabbed in the back by a white soldier and died the next day, September 6, 1877. He was 35 years old.
Crazy Horse was indeed “crazy;” mad for the love of his people, whom he never let down. He defended them and their way of life in the only way he knew, and only after he witnessed grave injustices toward them.
1n 1939, Lakota Indian Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote to Boston-born sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and asked him to carve Crazy Horse in the Mountains of the Black Hills. Lakota elders wanted to show the white man that Indians had their great heroes also.
In 1947, at age 38, after he served in World War II, and turned down a government commission to create war memorials in Europe, the self-taught “storyteller in stone” arrived in the Black Hills to carve a 100-foot likeness of Crazy Horse.
During his early months in the Black Hills, Korczak sat and looked at the mountain for five days and five nights. We can only imagine what he thought. At the end of the five days he decided to carve the entire mountain not just the top 100 feet. The vision had grown. After all, he said, “I had nowhere to go.”
Crazy Horse would be a symbol: a tribute to all North American Indians. The vision now included a memorial in the round — the largest sculpture ever undertaken, a Native American medical center, a university, and museum. Korczak’s purpose was to give the Native Americans “a little bit of pride and to try to right a little bit of the wrong … [the white people] did to [them].”
Korczak spent the next 35 years carving his dream. Life was hard. When he began the project he had only $174 and many local residents mocked him. They were skeptical of his motives, and racism reared its ugly head. The first several months he lived in a tent as he built a studio-home. In 1948-9 he built a 741-step staircase to the top of the mountain. He had no roads, water, or electricity for two years. He began carving the mountain with a hammer and chisel.
Korczak’s early years prepared him to cope with difficulty. He was an orphan at age 1. Raised in several foster homes and treated poorly, he left home at 16 to fend for himself. He never had a single lesson in art, engineering, or sculpture.
Korczak’s vision gave him strength: “I chose to do it the hard way.” His purpose was to “right a wrong the little I can. I wanted to do something worthwhile with my life,” he said.
Ruth Ross met Korczak Ziolkowski in West Hartford, Connecticut, where she and some other teenaged friends asked for an autograph. At age 20 (in June 1947), Ruth and her friends traveled to South Dakota to volunteer on the Crazy Horse project. Her friends returned to Connecticut but Ruth stayed. She and Korczak were married on Thanksgiving Day, 1950.
“No one thought it would be easy,” said Ruth.
Ruth gave birth to 10 children — all born at home and one delivered by Korczak. The older five children received their early education in a one-room schoolhouse at Crazy Horse.
Korczak knew he would not live long enough to finish the massive project. So, he and Ruth spent three years detailing three books of plans for the Memorial.
Korczak died in 1982, at age 74. He had blasted 7.4 million tons of granite from the mountain. His last words were to “go slow so you do it right.” The Storyteller in Stone rests in a tomb near the mountain with a door-knocker on the outside and a rotary telephone on the inside. People eulogized him as a man of “legends, dreams, visions, and greatness.”
Ruth then led Crazy Horse until her death on May 21, 2014. Seven of her 10 children, each of whom left the Memorial to do other things and returned because it was “where they belonged,” keep the dream alive and progress continues. Ruth says it is “not important when it’s finished; the important thing is that work never stops.”
When finished, the Memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. It will be taller than the Washington Monument and larger than the biggest pyramid. The four heads of nearby Mount Rushmore will fit inside of Crazy Horse’s head.
Public donations and admissions fund this humanitarian project. Korczak, who left a life of assured fame and fortune, never took a salary. He twice turned down $10 million in government grants and asked: “Why should a memorial to the American Indian be financed by the very government that broke its treaties with the Indians and turned its back on all its promises?”
Melanie told me after our visit: “I knew you were a believer. After seeing this Memorial in person, I am now a believer too.”