What’s Wrong with the Crazy Horse Monument?

The head of the Crazy Horse Monument
The head of the Crazy Horse Monument

Four years ago, I took my family on a road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along the way, we toured the Corn Palace in Mitchell, sipped water and shopped the trinkets at Wall Drug Store, took in the splendor of the Badlands, and camped in the woods on the mountains sacred to Lakota Indians. What I remember most, unfortunately, is the bad vibe I felt at the Crazy Horse Monument, just a short drive from Mount Rushmore.

This was the only tourist attraction that charged admission by the carload. The $27 fee gives access to a museum of Indian artifacts — a confusing collection of objects from many tribes, yoked together with no unifying theme — as well as a movie about Korczak Ziolkowski’s obsessive quest to sculpt the monument from the side of a mountain. You also get a distant view of the unfinished monument itself and a look at what remains of Ziolkowski’s art studio. For an additional fee, we could have taken a bus to a spot closer to the monument for a better view. After 65 years of blasting and excavation, the monument so far shows only Crazy Horse’s face and the top of his outstretched arm, with much, much more still to sculpt. At its current rate of progress, the monument will not be completed for about another 200 years.

As I walked through the small museum, I began wondering. Was this place really intended to honor Crazy Horse, the iconic Lakota leader who defeated Custer at Little Big Horn and was murdered by a U.S. Army private a year later, or did it stand as a monument to Ziolkowski? The sculptor’s story is interesting: brief work with Gutzon Borglum on the carving of Mount Rushmore, recognition at the 1939 World’s Fair for his bust of the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski, an invitation from the Lakota chief Standing Bear to carve the memorial to Crazy Horse in 1947, and Ziolkowski’s single-minded dedication to the project until his death in 1982.

Gradually, from examining the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation’s tax filings, I’ve come to understand another of Ziolkowski’s achievements.  His monument has provided lucrative employment to his family, and could continue to do so for many generations.  The foundation is a family operation that represents itself as a charity.

Korczak Ziolkowski with Lakota Chief Standing Bear, circa 1947.
Korczak Ziolkowski with Lakota Chief Standing Bear, circa 1947.

According to the foundation’s 2010 tax return (the most recent one available through guidestar.org) widow Ruth Ziolkowski, who is 85, earns compensation totaling $159,000 a year. (The foundation also states on the tax form that this octogenarian works an average of 80 hours per week.) Executive VP Jadwiga Ziolkowski makes $89,000, operations VP Anne Ziolkowski-Christensen brings in $69,000, resident artist Monique Ziolkowski-Howe takes home $53,000, and independent contractor Mark Ziolkowski makes $154,000 for forestry and rock-crushing work. Other family members hold jobs there, as well.

In 2011, the foundation — which has a net worth of $51.4 million — earned $6.9 million in revenue and ended the year with an excess of $1.6 million after expenses. I tried to glean how much the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation actually invests in bringing its sculpture of Crazy Horse to completion. There’s no clue in the tax filings, except a line that lists $371,000 for “other” expenses. If that’s truly what the foundation spends to work on the monument, it represents only 5 percent of the organization’s revenues.

Most nonprofit organizations do not operate with so much nepotism and so little apparent investment in the most visible part of their mission. (And few of the best nonprofits ignore or refuse to cooperate with the Better Business Bureau’s efforts to evaluate charities, as the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation has.) Ziolkowski often proclaimed his aversion to government support because he feared federal bureaucrats would slow things down and dilute the message of the monument. Something else government involvement would bring, of course, is oversight. As things now stand, with the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation receiving no government funds and operating on money that comes from admission revenue and charitable donations, its highest-paid officers have no incentive to complete the sculpture. The longer it takes, the more money in salaries and income Ziolkowski family members will receive. Why not let it take 200 years?

The foundation does sponsor some worthwhile programs, including college scholarships for Native American students, which totaled $250,000 in 2010. That same year, however, the compensation of its officers, directors, and key employees, most of them Ziolkowski family members, ran to $446,000. Something is out of balance.

Staff at the Crazy Horse Memorial museum say the completed monument will be the world’s biggest sculpture, a carving equivalent in height to a 56-story building and more massive than the Great Pyramid in Egypt. That’s impressive, but none of us will live to see it. As the nation waits, the Ziolkowskis keep enriching themselves from their unconventional charity.

9 Comments

  1. L. Nelson on December 3, 2021 at 1:59 am

    You obviously do not know how the monument began and existed until it got notoriety.

    • Jack El-Hai on December 3, 2021 at 9:27 am

      Can you point to any inaccuracies in my article?

  2. Gary A Ashley on April 5, 2022 at 10:39 pm

    The family knows to take federal funding for Crazy Horse memorial would upset the Lakota. It is the feeling that if the project is going to be done, we want the people of this country’s support, not just the Government. Right now, 1.48 billion dollars sits in an account for the payment of the Black Hills to the people and we have never touched that money because the Black Hills are not for sale. We asked Mr. Ziolkowski to do this for us and he kept his word so when you do good things it is called karma when good things happen back.

    • Jack El-Hai on April 6, 2022 at 9:36 am

      Thank you for your comment. I did not know Ziolkowski had reached an agreement with the Lakota to refuse government support for the monument. Can you lead me to any documentation of the agreement?

    • Jim birdsall on June 18, 2022 at 7:01 am

      We do however, take billions in compensation through homes, free health care and subsidies.

  3. DPhenix on June 3, 2022 at 11:10 am

    “The funds ordered by the Supreme Court went into a trust, whose value today, with accrued interest, exceeds $1.3 billion. It remains untouched.” From https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/09/23/who-speaks-for-crazy-horse/amp

    Ziolkowski family had NOTHING to do with that money.

    • Jack El-Hai on June 3, 2022 at 11:51 am

      Thank you for commenting. My article did not mention those trust funds, and I didn’t suggest the Ziolkowskis had any connection with them.

  4. Jim on June 22, 2022 at 8:43 pm

    These tax records are interesting Jack, glad I stumbled on your article. Some things you may not be aware of is that Korczak only ever got permission from one Lakota chief. “Chief” isn’t a singular position like president, it’s more like a leader of a few related families. Major decisions were usually reached by calling a council which would gather and discuss matters. One person never spoke for an entire band or tribe, and it’s a similar story with most cultures from the northern plains.

    So basically, Standing Bear did not have any singular authority to commission such a project. Even worse, living relatives of Crazy Horse never gave permission for the sculpture either. Crazy Horse never wanted to be photographed and there’s only one picture in existence which may or may not be him, so Korczak was basically guess.

    Many Lakota, including a few of my friends, resent the monument because, as your research hints at, the Ziolkowski family has realized the great potential for profit the monument has and instead of actually completing the project as Korczak intended, it seems the children are more than willing to use the name of Crazy Horse to make themselves money.

    Something that is more personal to me is that the memorial owns a small steam locomotive that Korczak bought in the 1980’s. This steam engine is one of only two in existence known to have operated in the Black Hills. According to the board, the locomotive does not match the memorial’s mission or scope, yet they will not sell or donate it to another museum. The family wants the engine painted in Disneyland-style colors because one of the daughters says her father promised he’d do that back in the 1980’s. Ruining the historical value of an artifact is bad enough, but the memorial wants to retain ownership of the locomotive, letting others foot the bill for the restoration.

    Personally, I’m hoping to eventually buy the engine outright someday and then giving it a proper home, but I may have to wait years or decades until enough of the family passes away that more pragmatic minds take over the board. Regardless, it’s become clear to me over time that the memorial cares more about the money that comes from appropriating culture and history rather than focusing on educating or at least properly honoring a people that have stood on the very edge of extinction. I don’t recommend the Crazy Horse Memorial for anything other than looking at an incomplete memorial that does nothing to honor the Lakota people.

    Meanwhile, if you ever come back to the hills, I suggest taking a tour of the Pine Ridge Reservation. A more appropriate place to learn about the history of the Lakota people can be found in Chamberlain in the Atka Lakota Museum. There is also Wounded Knee, site of the famous massacre and the 1972_73 standoff. There are battlefields and smaller memorials spread throughout the region. Crazy Horse Memorial might be convenient, but it’s like looking at a painting when the real thing lays beyond. Shoot, even the sculpture itself is even pointing out the way!

  5. Beau Bordeaux on August 3, 2022 at 6:57 am

    Ok, I read an article a while back about Ziolkowski that said he asked Frank Fools Crow, a famous medicine man, to come and do a yuwipi ceremony at his house, he was trying to buy Frank’s approval, So he set it up, and as is custom he had a star quilt he gave Frank and really poured it on but during the ceremony, Crazy Horse’s spirit came in and it was revealed by Frank that he said that Ziolkowski was the enemy and counted coup on him. In the room was a chair Ziolkowski had carved out of solid rock weighing about four hundred pounds and upon hearing what Crazy Horse said he blew up and ordered everyone out he was so pissed off that he demanded the star quilt back as they were all leaving and Frank said to him that it was under the chair, lol, the spirits placed it under there

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