There’s soul in them there hills

In south-west South Dakota, James Draven visits the Black Hills to see the story preserved in stone of revered Lakota chief Crazy Horse.

Paid partnership with The Great American West

There’s soul in them there hills

In south-west South Dakota, James Draven visits the Black Hills to see the story preserved in stone of revered Lakota chief Crazy Horse.

There’s soul in them there hills: to listen along to this story on the Black Hills in South Dakota, or to pause the playback, click the play button:

Six Grandfathers: that’s the Native American Lakota name for what you know as Mount Rushmore. Four forefathers of the USA have stared down from it since the completion of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in 1941.

Since 1998, a fifth face has also gazed across the Black Hills, the ancestral homelands of the Lakota people in the southwestern corner of South Dakota — a godfather of the Native American resistance: Crazy Horse.

Mount Rushmore was etched into Six Grandfathers — an area sacred to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho communities — between the years of 1927 to 1941.

The monument’s designer and sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, immortalised George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln by carving their 60-foot-tall faces into the towering cliffside, to respectively represent the founding; the growth; the development; and the preservation of the USA.

The US Government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which granted exclusive sovereignty of the Black Hills to America’s indigenous people. Within a decade, gold was discovered in the region and the US broke the treaty and seized the lands in 1877.

“What happened with the Black Hills is so clearly theft in relation to the US’s own laws,” said Christina Gish Hill, associate professor of anthropology at Iowa State University.

In 1939 — two years before the completion of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial — another colossal dream began to take shape in the Black Hills. It was in this year that a letter from Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear landed on the desk of self-taught sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski.

The Polish-born artist had been an assistant to Borglum on the Rushmore project before being fired, ostensibly for a falling out with Borglum’s son.

Chief Standing Bear — himself a giant of indigenous civil rights — implored Ziolkowski to carve a memorial that would honour forever the spirit of Crazy Horse, a revered chief of the Oglala subtribe of Lakota, who along with the Dakota comprise the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires).

 A determined warrior in the Sioux resistance to European Americans’ invasion of their lands, Crazy Horse was famed among the men who fought under Sitting Bull at the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Colonel Custer was killed. 

Today, as I arrive at Thunderhead Mountain, Crazy Horse’s gargantuan visage emerges from the surrounding verdure: romantic, stoic — and nearly 50% larger than the faces on Mount Rushmore. The eyes of the memorialised Crazy Horse gaze out over the lands where his ancestors lay buried.

His outstretched arm, however, is encrusted in rock, not yet able to show the way. Matchbox diggers and Hot Wheels cranes roll along his forearm —  full-sized construction vehicles made diminutive by scale — while ant-like workers scurry up his cragged bicep.

Beneath him, his steed is roughly outlined on the bluff below: a hint of a horse waits to gallop forth from its rocky origin.

The completed piece will stand nearly four times taller than the Statue of Liberty, but the construction process — initially set in motion in 1948 — has itself become a saga of monumental proportions.

In 1951 Ziolkowski estimated the project would take 30 years to complete, rather than the three-quarters of a century that have elapsed since.

The Crazy Horse Memorial would, at its inception, have been the tallest statue in the world. It will still be the planet’s largest rock sculpture — if it is ever completed — but it will now only be the second tallest since the 2018 completion of the Statue of Unity in Gujarat, India,

This statue took five years to build from metal and scrap iron, and stands at 597 feet, depicting statesman and independence activist Vallabhbhai Patel.

In low season, it costs around $12 per person to drive into Thunderhead Mountain’s grounds. The cost of admission includes entrance to three museums, respectively dedicated to Native American art, indigenous history, and to the sculptor himself. It’s by these means — and by public donations — that Crazy Horse is gradually appearing out of Thunderhead Mountain.

In 1982, Korczak Ziolkowski died of acute pancreatitis, aged 74. His wife Ruth and their children took the helm of this monumental task, making it a legacy that transcends generations. Ruth, wisely, decided to concentrate on the completion of the face, which would garner more public attention and tourist visitation. In 1998 — 50 years since construction began — Crazy Horse’s face was finally completed to much fanfare and a visit from Bill Clinton.

Ruth died in 2014, at the age of 87. Her daughter Monique became CEO of the company  and continues to work on the project with three of her siblings, with no end in sight.

Standing here though, the monument is undeniably impressive despite its uncertain future. I don’t take the bus ride to the base because it would then be too close to fully comprehend. Like so many members of the Ziolkowski family, it would be all I could see. From back here on the patio though — standing behind a scale model of Korczak Ziolkowski’s dream, with the unfinished reality far behind it — day-tripping visitors can get a better sense of perspective. 

More to explore: South Dakota’s Native American attractions

Dignity of Earth and Sky statue

Positively diminutive by comparison, this 50-foot-tall stainless-steel sculpture overlooks the Missouri River on Interstate 90, near Chamberlain.

It depicts an indigenous woman, in Great Plains attire, spreading a glimmering star quilt over her shoulders.

Erected in September 2016, the impressive statue honours the culture and dignity of the Lakota and Dakota people indigenous to South Dakota.

Aktá Lakota Museum & Cultural Centre

To learn more about the history and culture of the Lakota people, you should visit the Aktá Lakota Museum, which opened in 1991 on St. Joseph’s Indian School campus, and contains many artefacts dating back to the 19th century.

In Lakota dialect, Akta Lakota means ‘honour the people,’ and the museum guides visitors through Lakota history, from before European colonisation all the way up to contemporary issues facing tribes today.

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

On the shores of Lake Mitchell reservoir, the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is a 1,000 year-old Native American settlement and a National Historic Landmark since 1964. Sheltered from the elements under the Thomsen Centre Archeodome, it’s the only archaeological site in South Dakota that’s open to the public.

Guests can watch archaeologists uncovering artefacts, and then tour the Boehnen Memorial Museum to walk through a reconstructed lodge, and see many of the 1.5 million antiquities found here. Meanwhile kids can dig for arrowheads that they can take home and keep.

The Black Hills Powwow

Preserving and promoting indigenous culture for over three decades, the Black Hills Powwow (or wacipi, meaning ‘dance’ in Lakota) has become one of the premier Native American cultural events in the USA, attracting thousands of championship dancers and singers.

Taking place in Rapid City each October, the powwow is a celebration of life, history, and culture, offering an immersive insight into the Native American traditions while bringing communities together. Expect song and dance in traditional regalia, indigenous dining, crafts, pageants, plus hand games and archery tournaments.

Native American National and State Scenic Byway

To tie all of these experiences together while taking a road trip through South Dakota’s indigenous past and present, you can drive the 350-mile Native American National and State Scenic Byway.

Bisecting the state from the Chief Standing Bear Bridge on the Nebraska border in the south, to the North Dakota border, and loosely following the course of the Missouri River, the route takes travellers through the lands of the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes.

Spot bison, elk, pronghorns and prairie dogs as you drive through landscapes of undulating hills, prairie and limestone bluffs, and stop off at memorials and museums en route, such as the Sitting Bull Monument, found seven miles southwest of Mobridge.

Need to know

Getting there

The gateway cities of Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul have the closest international airports to South Dakota. From there you can fly into one of six regional airports.

Rapid Cit is a good bet for visiting
Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

Best time to go:

The weather is most pleasant between May and October, when the skies are blue, wide and beautiful.

Alternatively, November to January will be the best for skiing.

Where to stay

Experience the great outdoors under canvas — in tents or tipis. Try glamping or stay in a wagon, RV, dude ranch or historic inn.

There’s luxury too with spas, contemporary hotels and magnificent lodges all making the most of the beautiful scenery.

Must-pack item

Walking boots provide essential support, grip, and protection for navigating rough and uneven outdoor terrains.

And a decent camera will be essential to capture ‘big sky’ country.

How to do it:

National and regional car hire companies are located at most airports. This is easy driving country whether you are on two or four wheels. 

Routes lead through national and state parks, major cities, small towns and attractions big and small.

Anything else

Explore the fresh glacial lakes and prairies of north eastern South Dakota for camping, outdoor adventures and frontier history.

Discover the outdoor arts in Sioux Falls and look out for The ArtBox gallery, Sculpture Walk and colourful murals downtown.

More information

This article was brought to you in partnership with The Great American West

Journey through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming and experience awe-inspiring scenery, iconic National Parks, legendary history, American Indians, and the great outdoors.

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