Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Memorializing Crazy Horse

The treatment of Native Americans by European-Americans is deplorable. There is little in the history of their relationship that is not embarrassing today for sensitive USAmericans with European roots. The construction of the Crazy Horse Memorial, though, is one small attempt to rectify the appalling past.  
Earlier this year after viewing Mount Rushmore for the first time, June and I visited the nearby memorial being built to honor one of the most famous Native Americans, Crazy Horse. Born around 1840 into the Lakota (Oglala) tribe, by about 1860 he had demonstrated great bravery in battle (against other Native Americans) and was on his way to becoming a great warrior. 
Crazy Horse became involved in raids against the white settlers after the November 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, led by the despicable John Chivington (1821-94). By 1868, or maybe earlier, “he reached the top of Lakota society. To many Lakota, he seemed to display the four virtues that the tribe most admired: courage, fortitude, generosity, and wisdom” (Jon Sterngass, Crazy Horse, 2010, p. 58).
Crazy Horse was heavily involved in the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. He was highly successful in the Battle of Little Bighorn in June 1876. The leader of the whites was General George A. Custer (1839-76). It turned out to be “Custer’s last stand,” a victory for the Native Americans—and their last.
Embarrassed by Custer’s defeat just at the time of their centennial celebration of the United States’ independence, white Americans began to fight in retaliation. After suffering through an extremely harsh winter, it gradually became clear to the Native Americans that they were no match for the whites. Thus, in May 1877 Crazy Horse and his people surrendered.
Later that year while a prisoner, Crazy Horse was stabbed in the back with a bayonet. That was on September 5, 1877; he died the next day.
Exactly 31 years later, on September 6, 1908, Korczak Ziolkowski was born to Polish parents in Boston. In 1939 he worked briefly as an assistant to Gutzon Borglum, who was carving Mount Rushmore. Later that same year Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota educator, invited the young sculptor to carve a Native American memorial.
Standing Bear explained, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, also.”
Several years later, in May 1947, Ziolkowski set up camp near the mountain he would carve into a giant sculpture. With the first blast on June 3, 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial was dedicated. At that time Ziolkowski pledged that his project will be “a nonprofit educational and cultural humanitarian project financed by the interested public and not with government tax money.”
Photo by June Seat, May 2012
Ziolkowski worked for the rest of his life on the memorial, “the largest sculptural undertaking the world has ever known—563 feet high and 641 feet long.” (By comparison, the Washington Monument is 555 feet tall.) He died unexpectedly at the age of 74 in 1982, but his wife and some of his ten children kept the project going. Now some of his grandchildren have joined the effort.
Finally, in 1998 the face of Crazy Horse was completed. The work has continued on since then—and still goes on. To be frank, though, I don’t think it will ever be finished; certainly not in my lifetime.
While I have some qualms about memorializing a man who was primarily a warrior, fighting not only whites but also other Native Americans, it is very appropriate for a memorial to be carved “as a symbol for the spirit of all Native American Indians.” 

The above quotes, and some of the information, come from Robb DeWall, Carving a Dream (1992, 2012).


  1. Thanks, Leroy. You make me want to go see it. Here, by the way, is a short excerpt from my forthcoming sociology book:
    The practice in the U.S. of resettling Native Americans on reservations can be viewed as segregation or as ethnic cleansing. Viewed from the perspective that these were lands still a part of the U.S., it was a practice of forced segregation. Viewed from the perspective of removing an ethnic or racial group from a geographical area desired by a more powerful group, it was ethnic cleansing. The most egregious act perhaps was what is now known as the “Trail of Tears,” whereby five tribes—Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole—were forcibly moved from their homes in the east to “Indian territory,” present-day Oklahoma. The acts of removal began in 1831 with the Choctaws and continued throughout the 1830s, with the last band of resisting Seminoles removed from Florida in 1859 in chains. These forced moves came at horrendous cost to the Native Americans. ... The Osage tribes of the new Louisiana Territory (mostly in present-day Arkansas and Missouri) were pressured and threatened into signing a treaty in 1808 that would give all their lands “for ever to the United States” except a narrow strip on the western edge of present-day Missouri. As the tribal leaders and warriors met and agonized over the decision, Sans Oreille, a chief of the Little Osage, addressed them: “My children, the Great White Father has spoken through his messenger, the trader Chouteau. The Great White Father is strong. We are weak. We have no choice but to accept” (Wolferman 1997:70-71).

  2. A tragic history. The depth and scope of maltreatment of the American tribes (North & South) is worthy of note. The saddest of the stories, personally, is recounted by Anton Jacobs above - the egregious treatment of the "civilized" tribes, and is why Andrew Jackson makes my top 10 worst presidents. Yet the fullness of history needs more room to contemplate. It was not just evil “European-Americans” against the good “Native-Americans”, neither of which is monolithic (stated as one who could claim official Cherokee heritage if desired – 1/8). Tribal warfare within those groups was also spectacular.
    Sadly, this is not confined to the American continents – it is world-wide, and still exists. Please do not consider this an endorsement of any of these campaigns. My own family history has been effected by religious and tribal persecutions and wars (not only the Cherokee refugees, but also the French Huguenot refugees), and this still happens around the world on every continent (possible exception is Australia – I just don’t know). I have no good hope on this, for even Christians still attack and kill each other and are beatified for it.
    Interesting stories, but what do we make of them practically?

    There is none righteous, no not one. Many innocents are destroyed in the process, yet war remains a necessity to protect innocents and civilizations from the despots who still abound. Thankfully their were good generals like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull to slow the outcomes for the Lakota.

  3. The following comments are from a Thinking Friend in Wisconsin:

    "Thanks Leroy, a warrior poet might be a way to talk about the Chief. It is an example of the complex issue of being human. The Sikh’s are strong warriors in battle yet their spiritual foundation is one of peace, service and compassion. . . . I am thinking about hunting, the native folks, not only here, when they hunt they first ask the creatures for permission to use their bodies for clothes and food and sometimes meds. I had a buddy who help me cut most of the wood I have here, even when we cut down a dead tree, or injured one, we never faced the tree when it fell, after a moment of silence before we cut. I am not sure this all fits here, but your fine essay opened some files in my mind, many thanks."

  4. It is somewhat curious that Crazy Horse is being memorialized in the European way—by blasting away a mountain. I love this story, and I very much want to see the CH Memorial project completed, but there is a tinge of irony that the the memorial draws upon the ideas of Western European heroification (even deification) of government leaders and the defacement of nature we call Mount Rushmore. Is this what Crazy Horse would have wanted?

    1. Joshua, thanks for posting your pertinent comments and thoughtful questions. My guess is Crazy Horse would have been adamantly opposed to blasting away at a mountain in order to create a memorial for him--or for any Native America.

  5. For those who live in the metro Kansas City area and are interested in American Indian history, I recommend a visit to the Huron Cemetery in downtown Kansas City, Kansas (near 7th & Minnesota, enter from 7th street side). A walk through it while reading all the historical signs can bring tears to your eyes.

    Up until 1843 the Huron were living as "civilized" settled Christian (mostly Methodist) farmers in Ohio. They had intermarried so much with Anglo settlers and French traders that they pretty much all had European surnames (many streets in KCK carry their names). Nevertheless, they were forced to move to Kansas in 1843-44 because they were Indians, and their land was coveted by settlers. I presume my own Amish ancestors who moved into Holmes County, Ohio were part of the settler population that contributed to this move.

    Then, sixty years later in 1906, the government authorized the sale to developers of the land in the downtown area of Kansas City, Kansas that included the cemetery where the Huron had buried their dead. Three sisters who's parents were buried there, launched a public relations and legal defense campaign to prevent the sale. For a time the three Conley sisters lived on the property in a makeshift shack threatening to shoot anyone who would harm the cemetery. Lyda Conley, one of the sisters, began to study law, and by 1909 became the first Native American woman attorney to be admitted to the bar of the US Supreme Court where the final appeal of the case was heard. She lost her case, but in 1916 with the aid of Kansas Senator Charles Curtis legislation was passed to protect the Huron Indian Cemetery as a park.

    1. Clif, thanks for informing me, and other readers of this blog, about Huron Cemetery. I did not know about it, and I'm sure June and I will want to visit there soon.

      When I was a very young boy, my family lived for a couple of years in the little town of Huron, Kansas. I need to check on how it got its name.

  6. Thinking Friend Mike Lassiter, Associate Pastor of Second Baptist Church (Liberty, MO) send the following comment, which I post with his permission. (2BC has had a long and deep relationship with Lakota people in central South Dakota).

    Leroy, we have learned that both Mount Rushmore (especially) and the Crazy Horse memorials are offensive at least to the people we have talked with on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

  7. Some now forgotten professor stuck a modified version of George Santayana's famous quote in my mind, namely, "Those who do not mourn history are condemned to repeat it." Santayana actually spoke of those who "cannot remember," but I think that "mourn" was a profound substitution. There is much to mourn in almost all times and places.

    Those who saw Ken Burns' series on America's National Parks met Gerard Baker, a native American who served as Superintendent of Mount Rushmore. He was very concerned when the post was offered to him, and consulted with Lakota elders before accepting the position. While he has loved his overall service in the National Parks, he was well aware of the problematic nature of Mount Rushmore. As he put it, "Coming to Mount Rushmore--it was very challenging to accept the job, because for Indian people it means the desecration of the sacred Black Hills; it means the losing of the Black Hills; a lot of negative things." Now that is mourning history. Remembering it, yet moving beyond it. We have much mourning to do in America.

    Last weekend I was in Saint Louis, visiting my son. Getting up one morning before him, I found a copy of Elie Weisel's Night Trilogy and read the opening chapters. As he wrote this just a few years after the holocaust, he did not have the room to find the distance to be a park superintendent. Sheer remembering was overwhelming mourning all on its own. As I read it I realized how much previous horrors have shaped our religious tradition. The Assyrian deportation of Israel underpins much of the oldest parts of the Bible. Then came the Babylonian captivity, and the shock of return at the hands of Cyrus, the king of the Medes and the Persians--the only outsider labeled by the Bible as "messiah." It also hit me that a rather arcane subject in Christian history was quite relevant to this. Scholars think much of the New Testament was written in response to the first Jewish revolt against Rome. Usually we wonder how this might undermine Christian authority. Perhaps we should rather ask how much the horror of the Roman destruction formed and informed Christian thinking. So much to mourn.

    As for the Crazy Horse monument, and the Black Hills in general, I believe we all need to sit down, think, remember, listen, and mourn. Hearing the story of Gerard Baker gives me hope that somehow we can find a way forward, to a future we can all feel better about. In the high decibel world we inhabit, that is a challenge. Laying out a dream might be a first step.

    1. Craig, I had not heard the modified version of Santayana's quote, not have I seen Burns's series on the Parks, so thanks for sharing what you did with me (and with other readers of the blog). -- But on the other hand, are there not historical events that we can, and ought, to praise?

    2. Brilliant as usual, Craig!