This Thing Called Courage

Friday, May 05, 2006

Crazy Horse

THERE IS A LOT I SHOULD WRITE ABOUT, and I will-- John's funeral service, Will's christening, the weather, my garden, my current novel-- but what I want to write about right now is this amazing monument pictured left--bigger than the pyramids-- that is taking shape and has been taking shape in the Black Hills of South Dakaota. It is, literally, a monumental work-- in fact, all four faces carved into Mount Rushmore would fit across the face of the Sioux chieftain Crazy Horse that this depicts. Amazing. I had heard of this vaguely before, but had no idea the work was so large. Below is an article from this Sunday's Globe, written by columnist Beverly Beckham.

BLACK HILLS, S.D. -- You'd think that we'd know his name. You'd think if a man from Boston, born on Harrison Avenue, orphaned at the age of 1, beaten and abused his whole childhood, grew up and did something great -- something no one else has ever done -- we'd have at least heard of him.
You'd think that conceiving and working for 35 years on the biggest sculpture in the world, bigger than the pyramids in Egypt, would be a shoo-in to fame.
We know the bad guys -- the Albert DeSalvos, the Whitey Bulgers, the Father John Geoghans. Our culture makes celebrities of them. But the good guys? They're ignored. The reason we don't have heroes anymore is not because they don't exist. It's because no one is telling us about them.
Boston-born Korczak (core-chalk) Ziolkowski (jewel-cuff-ski) is one of these heroes. His account of his early life is chilling: Beaten in the orphanage where he lived until he was 4, beaten by the prizefighter who took him in and used him for slave labor until he was 16, tortured by his foster mother who beat him if she caught him reading, who threw knives at him for fun, and who made him sleep in an attic without heat or blankets on crates he found on the streets, he didn't break.
''It would have been child abuse today," his widow, Ruth, says. But back in the early 1900s this was the way things were.
Boston Juvenile Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot showed the boy the only kindness he knew. He brought him to museums and symphonies and to his sister's and Korczak learned that there existed a different and better life.
It was this life of culture and civility that he held in his hands in 1939. Though he never took a lesson, though he learned how to carve wood and stone while working in the shipyards in East Boston, though his only diploma was from Rindge Technical High School in Cambridge -- Korczak won first prize by popular vote at the 1939 New York World's Fair for his marble sculpture ''Paderewski: Study of an Immortal."
Suddenly the world was his.
He was living in Connecticut then and had a little bit of fame and fortune. But with the prize came the opportunity for more.
And then he got a letter from a Sioux Indian chief. Mount Rushmore was being built in the hills of South Dakota -- a tribute to American presidents. And the chief wrote, ''My fellow Chiefs and I would like the White Man to know the Red Man had great heroes, too," and asked Korczak to come to the Black Hills and build a monument to Crazy Horse.
Korczak met with the chiefs and learned that Crazy Horse was a great hero. So he made a clay model. Then World War II came along. Korczak enlisted. And fought. And survived Omaha Beach.
After the war, the government offered him a job sculpting war memorials in Europe. But he returned to South Dakota and from 1947 to his death in 1982 worked nonstop on a monument that when it is finished will be the biggest in the world.
He was 40 when he finally began work on the mountain. He'd spent two years building a cabin and a 741-foot staircase to the top before he could start. Then, until the mid 1950s, he worked alone with just a small jackhammer. Over the years he broke bones, hurt his back, had four spinal operations to remove shattered discs, had two heart attacks, and heart surgery.
He died in 1982 at age 74, having removed 7 billion tons of rock from the mountain but never seeing the face of Crazy Horse he saw in his mind.
But he left three books of blueprints and a wife and 10 children who'd worked with him. His wife and seven of the children continue the work where he left off.
Now the face is there for all to see -- it was completed in 1998. But the entire project -- three-dimensional, 563 feet high and 641 feet long, with Crazy Horse seated on his horse -- will take decades to finish.
Korczak raised and spent more than $5 million on the carving. He never took a salary or an expense account. Twice he turned down $10 million from the government because he didn't trust the government to finish the job or to honor its humanitarian goals. Crazy Horse Memorial is more than a sculpture. It is a living center, which exists to honor all American Indians and to tell their story.
Ruth, now 80, still lives on the mountain in the log cabin her husband built. He's buried in a tomb near the base of the mountain. More than a million people a year visit Crazy Horse Memorial. Ruth greets many of them. She greeted me last week.
''It will take many, many lifetimes" to complete Crazy Horse, Korczak told author Robb DeWall. This didn't bother him. ''If I can give back to the Indian some of his pride and create the means to keep alive his culture and heritage, my life will have been worthwhile."
Worthwhile and worth remembering.
Beverly Beckham can be reached at

Isn't that amazing? Lughead (in my story of the same name) thought that Mount Rushmore was a natural phenomenon-- how much more so he would think this. I often think about how the Native Americans had this continent for 10,000 years, and left it nearly pristine at the end of that period, when they were superceded by Europeans. We've had it for 400 years and...well, the results are obvious. "Man did not weave the web of life, but is only a strand in it," said one of the great chiefs. "He cannot damage one of the strands without damaging the entire web." We will come back to that non-scientific but nevertheless deeply accurate credo as a species-- or we will perish. Next on the to-read list is 1491, which tells the story of the Americas before the vast majority of the native populace was wiped out--before whites even settled here-- by disease. The author apparently asserts that history would have been quite different had the natives not died in such numbers-- and that colonization wouldn't have really taken hold, certainly wouldn't have supplanted the native culture and its ultimate predominance (as colonization did not in the east) and that Western society would have learned as much from the Americas as it did from the Orient. For those interested, a good as place as any to start a study of Native America, after 1491, would be Dee Brown's seminal Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is still as powerfully shocking as it was thirty six years ago when it rocked the world and changed the perceptions instilled by history books and Hollywood of pesky Injuns making savage raids on innocent white settlers. Alas, the opposite was the case.
After that one should read Peter Matthiessen's In the Spirit of Crazy Horse-- this will answer the question of who is Leonard Peltier (and many other questions as well) in case you don't understand the Free Leonard Peltier bumper sticker one sees from time to time; though not as much as one used to, and, alas, certainly not as often as one sees a yellow ribbon on a vast SUV. You could (and should-- everyone should) also read Prison Writings: My Life is a Sun Dance by the man himself, Leonard Peltier, and understand how the shocking treatment of Native peoples in this country goes on today.


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