Storyteller in Stone
by Eugene Obidinski
Polish American Journal, September 1995

 

CRAZY HORSE, S.D.—"There's really something mystical about this place," Dawn recalled as she glanced from the visitor's desk toward a South Dakota mountain being transformed into a Native American Memorial.

She was less interested in the spirits resting in the Black Hills peak than in the vision of her father, sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who began carving a monument to the Lakota chief, Crazy Horse, 47 years ago.

Why should the Boston-born son of Polish immigrants labor for decades to create a colossal sculpture of a thirty five year old Lakota Indian chief killed by an American soldier at an Army post in Nebraska in 1877? And why does the sculptor's family continue to shape stone into a sacred symbol?

Dawn tried to explain. "Maybe he wanted to right a little of the wrong done to the Indian people by leaving something behind for them." Leaving behind a memorial that would be 563 feet high - or eight feet higher than the Washington Monument - could not right all the wrongs endured by Native Americans but would acknowledge their heroic struggle to survive.

An inscription near the entrance of the Memorial gives another reason for the continuing efforts to complete the sculpture and a Native American educational-cultural center at Crazy Horse: When the legends die, the dreams end, (and) there is no more greatness.

The fulfillment of Korczak Ziolkowski's dream was entrusted to his wife, Ruth, and a family of ten children - seven of whom work on the Memorial project. Several of Dawn's brothers and sisters answer to names which are more Polish than American: Adam, Jadwiga, Casimir, and Marinka.

According to an account by Robb DeWall, "...Korczak kidded that he had made a bargain with Ruth - she got to have the children and he got to name them!...Later, when there were so many Ziolkowskis in school at once, Korczak decided the practical thing to do was open his own school. So, he moved a one-room schoolhouse to Crazy Horse, where several of the children got their education from a certified teacher." (1, 42)

According to DeWall, before Korczak's death in October 1982, his sons learned mountain carving skills while their sisters assisted Ruth in handling an "ever-expanding" visitors center. As Dawn greeted a steady stream of visitors and answered phone calls during a busy morning in late June, at least one of her brothers was high on the mountain chipping away stone from the emerging face of Crazy Horse.

Nose and cheekbone segments were completed in May and if progress continues as anticipated, the entire face will be finished by June 1998 in time for the 50th anniversary of the Memorial's dedication. The face and head portions will be approximately 87 feet high and 58 feet wide - larger in size than the individual carvings of U.S. Presidents at the nearby Mount Rushmore National Monument.

Ziolkowski came to the Black Hills in the summer of 1939 and, for a brief period assisted in the Gutzon Borglum carving of the Mount Rushmore Memorial. However, in the same year, his 1935 marble bust of Paderewski (study of an Immortal) won first prize in the New York World's Fair and attracted the attention of Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear who asked Korczak to return to the Black Hills and create a memorial to Crazy Horse.

Chief Standing Bear's invitation was an appeal to Korczak's feelings of justice and patriotism: "My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes too." (1,3)

Ziolkowski completed a "heroic size" bust of Standing Bear in 1940 but waited until after his service in World War II to accept the Crazy Horse commission.

According to DeWall, Korczak and Standing Bear picked out the memorial site in 1946 - even though it may not have been Korczak's first or preferred choice:

"He wanted to carve the Memorial elsewhere, perhaps in the Wyoming Tetons where the rock would be better and where it would not be so close to Mount Rushmore. But the Indians insisted their Memorial be in the Black Hills, sacred to them for many generations.

"They were also convinced Korczak was destined to carve Crazy Horse when they discovered Korczak was born September 6th (1908). Crazy Horse had died 31 years before on September 6th after being held by an Indian policeman and stabbed in the back by a white soldier while under a flag of truce. To the Indians the coinciding dates were an omen. Another was that during his lifetime, Crazy Horse told his people he would return to them in stone..." (1,35)

Ziolkowski's decision to carve the large monument out of a mountain, according to DeWall, involved "...his determination that Crazy Horse would not represent just one Indian leader but stand as a great symbol of the native American. The sculptor did not care for depictions of the Indian as a defeated and dejected race of people. Thus, he designed Crazy Horse as a proud figure proclaiming, 'My lands are where my dead lie buried.'" (1,35)

However symbolic, the Crazy Horse Memorial is hardly a morbid mausoleum. As tourists ascend the Avenue of Chiefs toward the mountaintop monument, they pass a courtyard and buildings filled with expressions of native American culture as well as impressive art works of a Polish-American who wanted to be remembered as a "storyteller in stone."

Most visitors are drawn to the scale model of the completed Crazy Horse Monument - a proud, defiant Indian leader with an outstretched arm, riding into the wind astride a galloping horse. Other images, in bronze and wood as well as stone, are preserved in Ziolkowski's studio-home and an outdoor gallery adjacent to it.

Among the collection of wooden and stone carvings is the Polish Eagle he carved from white Tennessee marble as a model for a Polish Memorial in Meriden, Connecticut. Like Crazy Horse, the Eagle carried mystical meaning impossible to ignore or destroy.

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