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Close up of the monument to Crazy Horse. Source: Scott Lee / Public Domain.

Monument to Hero Crazy Horse Is Taking Shape After 70 Years


The famous Lakota were one of the three Sioux tribes of the plains. Throughout their history, which is both glorious and tragic, there have been many prominent heroes, braves, and chiefs.

The one that stands out is the famous Crazy Horse. His daring exploits and his fight for freedom remain etched in the pages of history as a symbol of fighting oppression and captivity.

In order to immortalize the deeds of Crazy Horse, several Oglala Lakota chiefs had the idea of creating a huge monument, similar to the ones of Mount Rushmore, that would stand as an eternal reminder of the fighting Lakota spirit.

The project was begun in 1948, and today, roughly seven decades later, it is still not completed. The long fight to finish the statue of Crazy Horse continues. This is its story.

The Young Lakota Brave and the Birth of the Crazy Horse Monument

Tȟašúŋke Witkó, meaning “ His-horse-is-crazy”, better known as Crazy Horse in English, was a famous and renowned war leader of the Oglala Lakota tribe. In the 19th century, he was the one that lead the opposition against the federal government of the United States, taking up arms with his men. He struggled to preserve the sacred and ancestral lands of his peoples, which were being increasingly occupied by the American settlers.

Born in the Oglala period of Stole-One-Hundred-Horses, which was around 1840-1842, as Čháŋ Óhaŋ (Lakota for “ Amongst-the-trees”), this young Indian was marked for greatness since his early childhood, and would grow up to be, for many, one of the greatest war leaders of the Lakota. With his deeds and through his lifelong struggle, Crazy Horse would surpass many of his Lakota predecessors, such as Sitting Bull, Spotted Tail, and Red Cloud, as well as his contemporaries, Conquering Bear and Touch-the-Clouds.

Alleged photo of Crazy Horse in 1877. (Telrúnya / Public Domain)

Alleged photo of Crazy Horse in 1877. (Telrúnya / Public Domain)

Throughout his youth, Crazy Horse was faced with the rapid demise of the traditional Lakota tribal way of life. The nomadic movement across the plains was gradually losing importance with the rapid disappearance of the buffalo herds.

Young Crazy Horse was always affiliated with those conservative Lakota groups that persevered in their rejection of the lifestyle that was imposed by the United States government. This included living on treaty guaranteed reservations, where the natives would be fed rations, educated in the modern way, and assimilated in the culture of the growing America.

With his rejection of these ways, Crazy Horse kept alive the traditions of his people, and his particularly tactful and shrewd nature shone through. Since his early youth, this young brave proved himself in daring exploits. One of his earliest forays was a horse stealing raid, in the company of some 160 men, which was targeted at the rival Shoshone tribe.

But one of the transforming events in the life of Crazy Horse was the so-called Grattan Massacre. In 1854, Crazy Horse and a band of Lakota Indians lived at a camp in Wyoming. A United States Army detachment of 30 men, led by Lieutenant John Lawrence Grattan, entered the camp with the intent to arrest a Miniconjou Lakota man who had reportedly stolen a cow from a Mormon caravan. In an ensuing struggle, the US soldiers shot and killed Chief Conquering Bear ( Matȟó Wayúhi).

In return, all 30 US soldiers were massacred on the spot by the Lakota. Afterward, Crazy Horse pursued a greater role in life as a Lakota warrior, chasing answers through traditional native medicine and spiritual visions. All of these spoke of his warrior future.

His conflicts with the US Army started somewhere around 1864, when the Lakota became allies with the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, in the aftermath of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre. In the following year, Crazy Horse distinguished himself in the Battles of Platte Bridge and Red Buttes, both decisive native victories. His leadership and the ability as a warrior became further obvious as he led his men in the Fetterman Fight, and the famous Battle of Little Bighorn, a part of the Great Sioux War of 1876, a decisive Indian victory which saw the death of General Custer.

After 1877, and the last big battle, at the Wolf Mountain, the band of Crazy Horse was faced with defeat. Diminished, hungry, and cold they were doomed to perish. In a desperate last attempt to save them, Crazy Horse decided to surrender to the US Army, thus sealing his fate.

Crazy Horse and his band of Oglala on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender to General Crook. (McGeddon / Public Domain)

Crazy Horse and his band of Oglala on their way from Camp Sheridan to surrender to General Crook. (McGeddon / Public Domain)

He surrendered in 1877, and shortly after, while resisting an arrest attempt against him, Crazy Horse was stabbed with a bayonet, dying in the arms of his close Miniconjou follower, Touch-the-Clouds.

Carved in Stone – Immortalizing Crazy Horse the Native Hero

The idea of immortalizing Crazy Horse with a large carved monument arose in the 1930’s, when the then Oglala Lakota chief, Standing Bear, and his brother, contacted the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, suggesting the creation of Crazy Horses’ monument. Borglum was the creator of the famous Mount Rushmore in South Dakota – which happens to be the chief land of the Lakota Indians.

In fact, it was Standing Bear’s brother who suggested it to Borglum in 1931, writing in a letter that “ Crazy Horse is the real patriot, and should be placed besides Washington and Lincoln” and that it was “ most fitting”. Borglum never replied.

Adamant to have this sculpture created, and the voice of the natives heard, chief Standing Bear wrote to many people in his desperation. In a letter to James Cook, a friend of the natives, he wrote that “ he was hopeless and without funds, without help from either Indian or white man”.

Eventually, Standing Bear succeeded in finding his sculptor. In 1939 he wrote a letter to the Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski. This man was the assistant to Borglum on the Mount Rushmore project. The chief asked Ziolkowski to sculpt Crazy Horse into the 600 foot (183 meter) Thunderhead Mountain, which was part of the Black Hills of South Dakota, a revered and sacred site for the Lakota. It was agreed and Ziolkowski spent time with the Lakota tribe, learning of their life and the deeds of Crazy Horse.

Korczak Ziolkowski and Henry Standing Bear. (Jphill19 / Fair Use)

Korczak Ziolkowski and Henry Standing Bear. (Jphill19 / Fair Use)

The land grant of the Thunderhead Mountains was allowed by the government and the US Forest Service, after Standing Bear wrote them and offered 900 acres (364 hectares) which he owned, in exchange. Eventually the memorial to Crazy Horse was dedicated on June 3rd, 1948. Five survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn were present at the ceremony.

The envisioned form of the sculpture is Crazy Horse astride a horse, pointing into the distance. Once completed it will be the world’s second tallest statue.

A model of the planned colossal sculpture, with the Crazy Horse Memorial in the background. (Ken Lane / CC BY-SA 2.0)

A model of the planned colossal sculpture, with the Crazy Horse Memorial in the background. (Ken Lane / CC BY-SA 2.0)

As Korczak Ziolkowski spent time to get to know about the Lakota and Crazy Horse especially, his idea of a giant monument expanded into something much larger. His plan was to create a sprawling complex beneath the monument itself, a museum and a place for different cultural activities.

The museum itself would be built to honor the Native Americans and would be constructed from the rock that was blasted during the forming of Crazy Horse’s features. At least that was the original concept of Ziolkowski.

He also envisioned the creation of a university and a medical training center, both of which would be aimed at the education of Native Americans. Even though the monument is not yet completed, there is already an orientation and a communications center erected at the site. Here visitors can learn more about the life of Crazy Horse, the history of the Lakota, and the work and life of Korczak Ziolkowski.

One interesting fact is that the sculptor, Ziolkowski, decided not to accept government funding for the project, or to accept any salary. The entire Crazy Horse Memorial is funded by private donations and fundraisers.

Creating a monument of such magnitude is no easy task, especially when we consider the planned dimensions: 641 feet (195 meters) long and 563 feet (172 meters) high. Starting in 1948, Ziolkowski did some of the work alone and some was done with the help of volunteers. In 1950 he married one of the volunteers, Ruth Ross. They had 10 children and seven of them continue to work on the sculpture in their stead.

After 36 years of work on the monument, Korczak Ziolkowski died at age 74, in 1982. His wife took over the work and was the overseer and CEO of the project until her death in 2014.

She lived to see the completion of Crazy Horse’s face, which was fully completed in 1998. Afterwards, after a lot of measuring and planning, the work on the horse and the hand was started.

Where Crazy Horse’s Dead Lie Buried

Seeing the enormity and the grandeur of the completed face, we are immediately struck by the incredible feat and vision of one man. Managing to carve such a large scale statue out of a mountainside is no small feat and seeing the end result does not fail to impress. Even though the complete monument is far from accomplished – no features of the horse are done – visitors can still come and enjoy the impressive face of Crazy Horse.

The large scale statue of Crazy Horse, in progress on the mountainside. (Kent Kanouse / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The large scale statue of Crazy Horse, in progress on the mountainside. (Kent Kanouse / CC BY-SA 2.0)

They can also visit the Indian Museum of North America, which was created on the site in the winter of 1972-1973, by Ziolkowski and his family. Here, a number of interesting exhibitions document the intricate history of the Lakota tribe, the sculptors life, Crazy Horse, and the survivors of the Battle of Little Bighorn. It is an interesting glimpse into the Native American culture, with a lot of the pieces donated by native families.

The chief inspiration for the Crazy Horse Monument, Mount Rushmore, was completed in roughly 14 years. That poses an interesting question, which a lot of people are asking – why is it taking so long to complete the Crazy Horse Monument? Well, a lot of it has to do with funding.

Ziolkowski originally refused government funding, as he had a great distrust of the government itself. This came from the fact that they ignored a previous agreement with the natives, and they also cut back funding for the Mount Rushmore project, forcing it to an early end – the Mount Rushmore Monument remains unfinished.

That is why the Crazy Horse Monument depended on private donations, fundraisers, visitors to the museum, etc. Several philanthropists have donated money over the years, with one significant donation being from Denny Sanford.

He donated $2.5 million in 2007, and then followed it with a $5 million donation over five consecutive years. But in 2019, with the rise of many fundraising platforms and modern methods, the Crazy Horse Monument is seeing a steady continuation of work, and the future of the complex looks as bright as ever.

The monument to Crazy Horse in progress, picture taken 2016. (Thomas Hawk / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The monument to Crazy Horse in progress, picture taken 2016. (Thomas Hawk / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The statue was envisioned as a sort of metaphorical burial place of Crazy Horse. Since he was buried in an unmarked grave, this grand monument would be the fitting tribute to this heroic man. And it would symbolically unite and resemble all the fallen Lakota natives in one monumental statue.

This stems from the alleged quote of Crazy Horse, from a recounting of his final days. “ Where are your lands now, Crazy Horse?” asked a victorious US soldier. “ Where my dead lie buried.” came the answer.

And this quote is connected to the hand of Crazy Horse pointing out across the Black Hills of South Dakota, where many of his men lie buried. It is his ancestral land, and his face, carved in stone, presides over it for ages to come.

The Monument Immortalizes Crazy Horse’s Spirit

The monument to Crazy Horse definitely deserves the help of every one of us. It is one of the rare monuments to the noble and brave spirit of the Native Americans, and the marker of the fighting heart of the Plains Sioux Indians.

It immortalizes the deeds of one of the bravest Indian heroes – Crazy Horse – one of the last native braves. In the generations after him, the native spirit was slowly assimilated into modern American society – the fire it carried was extinguished.

But whether we allow the deeds of Crazy Horse and all those who were beside him to become forgotten and lost to time, is up to us. For the dead can live eternally – as long as the memory of them survives.

Crazy Horse Monument in the distance. (UMASANKAR KIRUBAPURI / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Crazy Horse Monument in the distance. (UMASANKAR KIRUBAPURI / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Top image: Close up of the monument to Crazy Horse. Source: Scott Lee / Public Domain.

By Aleksa Vučković


Bray, M. 2006. Crazy Horse – A Lakota Life. University of Oklahoma Press.

Hargrove, J. 2001. Historic Monuments Series: Crazy Horse. Teaching & Learning Company.

Hart, M. 2002. Patriotic Monuments and Memorials. Teacher Created Materials.

Kotzwinkle, W. 2001. The Return of Crazy Horse. Frog Books.



I find it interesting that Custer is deemed a murderer and Crazy Horse a hero. Further evidence that revisionist history belongs to liberalism and falls within the boundary of a mental disorder. Crazy Horse was a savage that murdered on demand. No better than any other before or after.

Charles Ford

Charles Peterson's picture

When I first read about Crazy Horse back 60+ years,ago,it started a lifetime appreciation of the First People.

Aleksa Vučković's picture


I am a published author of over ten historical fiction novels, and I specialize in Slavic linguistics. Always pursuing my passions for writing, history and literature, I strive to deliver a thrilling and captivating read that touches upon history's most... Read More

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