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  • Writer's pictureHelen Avaient

Crazy Horse Memorial is more than just a mountain carving

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

It isn't just the impressive carving that is worth seeing on a visit here, this Native American visitor and cultural center has so much to see and do.

Start the self-guided tour by entering the building from the west, and travel in the manner of the sun. The best place to start your visit is attending an orientation film in the twin theaters, both show the same film.

Upon leaving the theatre, you enter a long room facing north, fronted by the Wall of Windows. Crazy Horse wore either one or two feathers in his head, from the red tailed hawk. This bird was one of the spiritual helpers that he saw in his visions. The mountain carving will have one single feather atop his head, rather than the full feather headdress that most Indian Chiefs wore. Looking out from the Wall of Windows gives you an impressive view of the mountain carving, ¾ mile away.

a wall of windows looks out over the Crazy Horse mountain carving in the distance. Ponderosa pines grown between the windows and the mountain

On the opposite wall are 72 painted watercolor portraits of the Indian Custer survivors, by artist David Humphreys Miller. The portraits reflect a deep sense of pride, honor and respect for these gallant warriors.

A photo of survivors taken at the dedication of Crazy Horse Memorial (June 3 1948) is also on the wall.

David was not native American, he was born in Ohio and travelled to South Dakota to paint the survivors of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

watercolour photographs of Indian survivors of the battle of little big horn are on a wall. just the head and neck, plus traditional headgear are painted. one person per frame

In the middle of the Survivor paintings is a large painting of Korczak that strangely only had a wooden frame on two sides. My guide explained that the other two sides of the frame are not to be installed around the painting until the mountain carving is finished.

a painting of a sculptor standing on a mountain top. he had a piece of drilling equipment in his hand. He wears denim pants, boots and a pale brown moleskin top. on his head rests a hat as he looks upwards towards the sky. white clouds are in the blue sky. in the background of the painting are distant mountains.

A Lakota sweat lodge (initi) stands in the corner. This lodge is formed from a wooden framework of willow branches. Over this are placed buffalo hides. Outside the lodge, a fire is kept burning and stones are heated on it, which are brought into the sweat lodge and sprinkled with water and herbs. Purification, healing, rebirth and renewal are parts of the sacred rites that the Native Americans seek whilst performing this ritual. Our guide, Jacinto, said that the sweat lodges are still used, mainly for coming of age ceremonies and vision quests.

a Native American sweat lodge made of buffalo hides

A winter count is a pictographic calendar of a peoples’ history. The winter count of Korczak hangs on a wall and includes pictures of his birth and early years, his marriage and children, and his life works. The calendar starts in the middle and works counter clockwise to the outside. It is usually rolled up and kept by the medicine man or elder.

a buffalo hide had drawings that symbolise the events in a persons life. decorated on the edges and feathers placed around it

The next wall displays a series of paintings by self-taught artist Andrew Standing Soldier. Andrew was born in the Badlands of South Dakota in 1917. All his pictures tell stories of the Indian peoples and of Western Pioneers.

a wall of paintings showing early American scenes of the wild west and everyday life of the people that lived then

Kachinas or Katsinas dolls are a fascinating part of Hopi culture. However, we were warned not to believe in them too much or they will come alive and follow you. The doll can represent anything from a harvest, kaos, birds to dieties.

native american dolls made of feathers look like a hybrid between a human and a bird. they are brightly coloured.

There are many Native American items on display, including weapons, beaded clothing and headgear, cooking implements, ceremonial staffs, photographs and paintings. Interesting were the broken pipes. They are in two parts, and the pipe is never displayed whole. When the pieces are together it used for ceremonial use as a bridge between the spiritual and the earth. Head east and this is where the Charles Eder collection begins. Donated back in 1965 visitors can see pipes, beads, clothing, carvings and other items used by the Lakota.

There are 24,960 beads on this horse's gear. All the designs have a symbolic meaning. The tail represents lightning, the hooves thunder, the muscles clouds, while the eyes look out over land.

a life sized horse statue with beaded coverings. white with geometric blues, reds and oranges in the design. the garments are fringed.

After a while it felt like a good time to eat lunch in the Laughing Water restaurant. It is named after the creek at the bottom of the mountain, which has never run dry. I was recommended to eat the Native American Taco. Many people recommended this delectable dish to me, and I am very glad they did. This was a traditional Indian fry bread topped with taco meat, refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, onion, sour cream and salsa. Whew! It was delicious and very filling. Windows in the restaurant look out towards the carving, and many paintings adorn the walls here too.

The visitor center was built in 2005 and in 2013 a cultural center was built using rocks from the mountain. This is an area that you wont want to skip. There is a movie in the carver room giving more information about the technical aspects and procedures used, and includes updated drone footage. In the carver room are photos of the progress over the years, and some of the equipment used.

a wall of photographs showing the progress of the mountain carving and various mining machinery on display

Sioux is derived from a French word meaning snake. The Sioux call themselves the Oceti Sakowin or Sevin Council Fires. The Lakota are the largest group today. Known as warriors they are mostly remembered for their resistance of European intrusion. Familiar Sioux warriors are Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

A brochure available at the visitors information desk can provide guests with more detail of the museum. It included a timeline of the Lakota and describes their belief that the black hills were sacred. This was not their permanent home, they followed the herds of bison across the Plains and came to the Black Hills for ceremonies, vision quests and burials. Crazy Horse said “My lands are where my dead lie buried”. In 1868 a treaty was signed between the US Government and some of the Native American Nations. It gave them the Black Hills and all of South Dakota west of the Missouri River. Sadly, this treaty was broken just six years later. Gold was discovered at French Creek and miners swarmed to the Black Hills in search of the precious metal. In 1875, three chiefs tried to persuade President Grant to honor the treaty. They wanted the miners stopped from intruding on their land. President Grant offered to buy the Black Hills for six million dollars but the chiefs refused to sell.

In 1877 the US Congress passed the Act of 1877 that took the Black Hills from the Lakota and Dakota. They could no longer hunt on their own lands, and they never saw the money. It was not until 1980 that the Black Hills were deemed to have been illegally taken, by the Supreme Court. Unable to return the land to the Sioux Nation, an offer was made that the original 1877 market value of the land plus interest was to be paid to the Nation. The tribes refused, as they said the Black Hills were not for sale. The money offered by the US Government is now in an interest bearing account, and is valued at over a billion dollars.

There are 574 federally recognized American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes. There are 326 Indian reservations, although less than half of American Indians live on reservations. There are nine Indian reservations in South Dakota. Tribes have their own laws, courts and police but are still subject to federal law. Flags of the tribes are hung around the center.

various indian tribal and nation flags hang from the ceiling of the visitor center

In the cultural center there are several interesting exhibits.

There are 111 Edward S Curtis photographs on display. Indians believed that if you had a photo taken you lost part of your soul. Most of the photos were staged, and there is controversy about the pictures being taken. However, a lot of the Native Americans wanted their heritage and traditions preserved and were happy to be the subjects of the camera. Half of Curtis' collection is here and the other half is in a museum in Arizona.

What is the difference between a buffalo and a bison? In the buffalo exhibit you will learn that they are the same creature, just different names are often used.

Legend has it that the Lakota people came from wind cave, underground. the earth was infested with animals and fire. The trickster god told them it was safe and they could come up. but they fought each other and went back underground. The buffalo told them to come up and they followed them, this is why the buffalo are revered. It is thought that the creator turned the fighters into buffalo.

There were 12-15 million buffalo in the 1800s. An extermination program was introduced. now, they are protected and there are estimated to be between 20-30 thousand in the wild. Posters educated me that these beautiful creatures were almost hunted to extinction. Due to the dedicated efforts of various people in the late 1880s onwards in establishing breeding programs and buffalo ranches, these animals can now seen by everyone. The nearby Custer State Park is a perfect place to see them roaming wild.

I also learnt there is a university program here that, each year, offers 32 students an eight week summer program each year. The students also work 22 paid hours at the memorial. They earn twelve university credits from doing the program. Over 300 students have attended the summer program over the last eleven years. A four year university and a medical center are also planned to be established nearby in the future.

Upon leaving this amazing place, look carefully at the Nature Gates. Korczak asked his ten children to go out and draw the wildlife they saw in the surrounding areas. He then made over 270 brass silhouettes of the animals and created this beautiful piece of practical artwork. Not only is it creative, it also shows the love a father had for both nature and his children.

a set of double gates. Black grid with bronze cut outs. The cut outs are silhouttes of local wild animals and vegetation that live and grow in the area. Birds, and land animals in bronze stand out.

Like other tourists and visitors to this incredible site, it is somewhere I want to come back to in the future. Not just to see the progress of the mountain carving, but to soak up the vibe of the area. The information provided here is educational, interesting and eye-opening. Crazy Horse Memorial is definitely enjoyable.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Between Hill City and Custer SD Hwy 16/385

When in the area, I also recommend visiting:

Wall Drug in the nearby town of Wall

Happy Travels!

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