For 70 years, the Ziolkowski family has been carving a sculpture out of South Dakota’s Black Hills that will be nearly 10 times larger than Mount Rushmore.

Dirty patches of snow dotted the roadside as we drove the winding route through the evergreen forests of south-western South Dakota, the van rattling despite the sedate pace. A late afternoon chill travelled through me as we reached the top, stepping out of the van and into mud that sloshed beneath our feet.

“I believe in first impressions,” my guide, Matt, said, “so don’t turn around until we get out to the wrist.”

We walked on. Around me, mountains rose and hills rolled in the afternoon light. The dense pine forest extended for miles, set against a cerulean sky that peeked out from behind slate-coloured clouds.

“Okay,” he said, “turn around.”

I turned and looked up, higher and higher, at the 87.5ft-tall face of 19th-Century Lakota leader Crazy Horse emerging from the granite slope of the mountain. His gaze extended past where I stood – on the protruding ledge that will one day become his arm – and out over the rugged Black Hills.

Both sculptures remain unfinished, but only one stands to be completed

In the Black Hills of South Dakota lie two impressive monuments to great men in American history: Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial, located 17 miles apart. Both sculptures remain unfinished, but only one stands to be completed.

When Korczak Ziolkowski first arrived in South Dakota in 1939 to help carve Mount Rushmore, he had no idea that his family’s legacy would in fact unfold just a few miles away.

For years, Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear had been on a mission to see a monument to American Indians erected in the Black Hills ‒ land that the Lakota considered sacred and wrongfully taken from them. When workers began sculpting Mount Rushmore in 1927, it spurred the Lakota elders to pursue a mountain carving of their own.

“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also,” Standing Bear wrote to Ziolkowski at the turn of the 1940s.

The hero Standing Bear had in mind was his cousin Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota leader who had fought in the Great Sioux War against the US government over ownership of the Black Hills. Crazy Horse had helped defeat US Army General George Custer and his cavalry in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in southern Montana – a battle that went down in history as Custer’s Last Stand.

Though the project resonated with Ziolkowski, he did not immediately commit. He instead returned home to Connecticut before volunteering for service in World War II, eventually participating in the invasion of Normandy and landing on Omaha Beach.

But when the war ended, Ziolkowski turned down offers to build war memorials in Europe, returning instead to the Black Hills on 3 May 1947 to begin what would be his last sculpture: that of Crazy Horse.

Standing 563ft high, the sculpture will be the largest mountain carving in the world

Standing on the outcropping that is slowly becoming  an arm, I zoomed in on the granite horseshoe-shaped pupil of Crazy Horse’s left eye and snapped another photo. So far, only his face has fully materialised, but when completed, the gigantic sculpture will depict Crazy Horse, his hair streaming in the wind as he sits atop his horse pointing out over his lands. Standing 563ft high, the sculpture will be the largest mountain carving in the world. By comparison, the heads of Mount Rushmore each measure 60ft tall.

“So, how did you find us?” Matt asked.

“I came here to see this,” I replied.

“Really?” he said. “You’d be surprised how many people have no idea we’re here. They see us from the road on their way to Mount Rushmore and stop.”

I wasn’t surprised. The Crazy Horse Memorial receives roughly one third the visitors each year that Mount Rushmore does. Some of the disparity is likely due to the cost of admittance ‒ up to $28 per car as opposed to $10 parking fee at Mount Rushmore. To avoid the fate of Mount Rushmore, which was never completed after government funding dried up, Ziolkowski decided that the Crazy Horse Memorial would be privately funded by admissions and donations.

More than one person I had spoken to in diners and at rest stops en route from California had been amazed to learn of the mere existence of the enormous memorial. If anything surprised me, it was that something so immense could remain a secret.

Korczak decided that if he was going to give his life doing this, it might as well be something big

“[Korczak] decided that if [he was] going to give [his] life doing this, it might as well be something big,” explained Mike Morgan, the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s vice president of media, marketing and public relations, and a 40-year veteran of the project.

But the concept of ‘big’ at the Crazy Horse Memorial goes far beyond the size of the carving. It extends to the vision that Ziolkowski had from the outset.

The ever-expanding complex is home to the Indian Museum of North America, the Native American Educational & Cultural Center and the Indian University of North America. “The mountain, Dad said, was the smallest part of the whole project,” said Ziolkowski’s youngest daughter, Monique, in a televised interview last year.

Ziolkowski gave his life for the mountain, breaking bones, undergoing numerous back surgeries and suffering multiple heart attacks. He remained in charge until he died in 1982. He never saw Crazy Horse’s face emerge from the rock.

Some wondered if his passing would mark the end of the memorial, but his wife, Ruth Ziolkowski, picked up the mantle. Under her leadership, focus shifted to completing the sculpture’s face to mark the 50th anniversary of beginning the carving. Her plan succeeded; the face was unveiled in 1998.

All the Ziolkowskis’ 10 children worked on the Crazy Horse Memorial in their youth: the girls helped their mother in the visitor complex, while the boys worked on the mountain with their father. Seven of the children made the memorial their profession, and today, a third generation of Ziolkowskis keeps the family legacy bright.

After descending from the memorial, I stood in the parking lot and took one last, long look at the sculpture. I imagined a young Ziolkowski surveying the mountain beside Standing Bear. I imagined him hanging from a rope without a harness, a single can of paint in one hand, outlining the horse’s head. I imagined him walking up the 741 stairs he built to the top of the mountain in that first year, and though it never happened the way I pictured it, in my imagination his children and grandchildren followed closely behind.

The people working on Crazy Horse… they see the vision and they’re interested in being involved with something that’s bigger than themselves

“This place defies explanation,” Morgan said. “The people working on Crazy Horse… they see the vision and they’re interested in being involved with something that’s bigger than themselves.”

Towards the end of our conversation Morgan’s voice grew a shade quieter, a touch more nostalgic. “I don’t think I’ll see it completed,” he said, pausing for a moment as if to let the words settle. “But you might.”

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