The Black Hills: Mount Rushmore versus Crazy Horse Memorial

Under the ideals of manifest destiny, the European colonizers began to expand towards the western coast of the United States during the 19th century. The one thing that stood in their way from their ‘God given right’ to travel westward was the fact that this desired land had already been populated by Native Americans long before. One area of interest to these expansionists was the Black Hills, located in the southwest corner of South Dakota. Here, the Lakota Sioux people had a special relationship with Mother Earth, even going as far as saying the Black Hills are “the heart of everything that is” (Corbin 1). “In Lakota belief, life is a circle, from birth to death to birth again. Accordingly, the Black Hills are a circle, too—an impression reinforced by the conspicuous loop of red soil and rock that neatly circumscribes the region…Symmetry, balance, seamlessness—these are the essential components of Lakota metaphysics, on earth as it is in heaven…The Lakota are the Black Hills. To separate one from the other would break the circle, cut the heart from the body” (Taliaferro 27). Nevertheless, the United States military fought the Lakota people for the land, but the US was defeated by the strength of the Natives lead by Crazy Horse (Mills 1). The Untied States government recognized this and signed the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Lakota people, which stated that these 60 million acres belonged to the tribe (Corbin 1). In the years following this, colonizers began to invade the Black Hills again, but this time in search for gold—a direct violation of the conditions of the treaty. “Settlers were aware that the Black Hills were aware that the Black Hills were sacred, considered the womb of Mother Earth and the location of ceremonies, vision quests, and burials. Initially, the newcomers accepted the fact that the Hills belonged to the Lakota—until gold was discovered” (Corbin 1). The following video describes the gold rush, specific events surrounding it, as well as the impact it had on both the colonists and the Indigenous People: Gold in the Black Hills. Eventually, General George Armstrong Custer was sent into the land by the US government in 1874 to investigate the rumors about the presence of gold (Wolff 1). When he confirmed this, Congress quickly created a new treaty in 1877, which officially took away the Lakota Sioux’s rights to the land (Corbin 1). This trend of the unjust stripping of land on behalf of the US government is apparent, but more importantly we frequently see the government suppressing the rights and beliefs of American Indians.

In 1927, construction began in the Black Hills on the project of carving the faces of four notable US presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt—into the southeastern side of Mount Rushmore (Mount Rushmore 1). Known as the ‘Shrine of Democracy,’ the national monument “symbolizes all that is fine and noble in America, joining the Liberty Bell and Statue of Liberty as the nation’s most luminescent beacons of democracy” (Taliaferro 2).

Current state of Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The overwhelming support of the government through monetary funds shows that national interest was at heart with the creation of Rushmore, but the voices of Native Americans about the project were suppressed. Many believed that carving into the mountain was a direct insult to Mother Earth—something to scared to Indigenous People. This land had belonged to them for thousands of years then was discriminatorily ripped away from them. In support of the American Indian voice, a Black Hills newspaper stated: “The famous [N]eedles region…will attract attention and exclamations of wonderment so long as they continue to stand in their majestic grandeur…To set the hand of man at work to improve on that of nature is a desecration which should not be permitted” (Taliaferro 60). Massive federal funds contributed to the complement of the monument in 1941 (Mount Rushmore 1). This intentional ignorance of the interests of the Native People is apparent here, but it is not the only example.

Motivated by the poor treatment of American Indians on behalf of the government, Korczak Ziolkowski decided to create a monument dedicated to Crazy Horse. After all, the land was theirs to begin with, so he believed that there should be a site that acknowledges this. The project came to life in 1948 and has yet to be completed (Perrottet 1). The monument depicts the fearless leader “as a proud figure with his left arm thrusting out proclaiming, ‘My lands are where my dead lie buried’” (Antonio 36).


Current state of Crazy Horse Memorial

Model of intended plan for Crazy Horse Memorial


Ziolkowski refused government funding because he acknowledged their untrustworthiness from their history of relations with Native Americans (Roberts 2). Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear fully supported this endeavor, especially since so much attention had been given to Mount Rushmore, located just 17 miles away from the planned site for the memorial. He stated that this would show the world that “the red man has great heroes, too” (El-Amin 1). Although there was much support for this project, many Native Americans strongly opposed it. When he was alive, Crazy Horse refused to be photographed or depicted pictorially, thus these critics believe that Crazy Horse would have never wanted a sculptural image of himself after his death (Ray 2). In addition, the fact that the sculpture would be carved into a mountain was controversial, as the Lakota people believe this is interfering with Mother Earth and would do the same amount of harm as Mount Rushmore. The plans for benefits associated with the memorial are what changed the minds of critics. For instance, the site includes a museum, a Native American cultural center, a cinema, a university, and a medical training center (Perrottet 2). This way, Mother Earth could be used for telling the stories of the Indian people, celebrating their culture, and providing resources to their community. Finally—an example of Natives taking back their land for their own benefits.

The systematic way the US government seized the rights to the Black Hills from Lakota Sioux shows that the government believes that their own interests triumph all others. The US intentionally disrespected the sacred relationship Lakotas have with Mother Earth, as it interfered with their monetary interests in the land. The outcomes of this have resulted in the repeated disrespect of Native People. The government eventually used the land to honor those who have suppressed the natives of the land through the creation of Mount Rushmore National Monument. To counter this, American Indians felt the need to create their own monument to Crazy Horse. Ziolkowski’s wife, Ruth, said: “We are trying to tell the story of the Indian people [and] of their pride of the wonderful way of life they had before we came and changed their whole manner of living by taking over their land” (Antonio 39). Overall, the United States acknowledges the wrongdoings pertaining to the treatment of Natives during the expansionary period on the country’s history, but it is apparent that the government does not feel the need to mend past issues. The Western mindset does not include an emphasis on spirituality, so it is difficult for them to fully grasp the ideals of Indigenous Religions, especially with their sacred relationship with land. Essentially, respect and open-mindedness are what are needed in order to mend the shattered relationship of between Natives and the United States.

Caroline Cary

November 2013

Works Cited

All Things Considered. The Slow Carving Of The Crazy Horse Monument. NPR, 2013.

Antonio, Sam. “Crazy Horse Memorial: A Tale of Two Stories Told in Stone.” New          American 28.2. (2012).

Corbin, Amy. “Black Hills.” Sacred Land Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 1 Sept. 2001. 1      Nov. 2013.

El-Amin, Malecia. “Carving out History at Crazy Horse Memorial.” Dallas Morning News.         2008.

Mills, Rick W. “Native American Culture and the Black Hills 1865-1873.” Black Hills Visitor. 1   Nov. 2013. <            american.html?pid=1026&sid=942:Native-American-Culture-and-the-Black-Hills-1865     1873-Part-3>.

“Mount Rushmore.” The History Channel. 2013. 1 Nov. 2013.        <>.

Perrottet, Tony. “Crazy Horse Rides Again.” Smithsonian 37.2 (2006).

Roberts, Chris. “Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski’s Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills Is an   Eye-catching Work in Progress.” Wild West 15.4 (2002).

Sundstrom, Linea. Storied Stone: Indian Rock Art in the Black Hills Country. Norman, OK:           University of Oklahoma, 2004.

Taliaferro, John. Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mount  Rushmore. New York: PublicAffairs, 2002.

Wolff, David. “Gold Mining in the Black Hills.” Black Hills Visitor. 1 Nov. 2013.  <         Mining-in-the-Black-Hills>.

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