One Polish-American's Dream Continues -
Twenty-Five Years After His Death (in 2007)

by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska

Korczak and Ruth Ziol~kowski in 1982.
Photo by Robb DeWall

Korczak Ziol~kowski (1908-1982), a Polish-American Sculptor, was born, in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 6, 1908. One year later, he was an orphan and grew up in a series of foster homes.

No one knows whether his family relates to the noble clan Korczak, as his given name suggests, but if so, his surname Ziol~kowski was given this coat of arms in 1500, in Krakow, Poland. If not noble in fact, then noble in deeds. This is one story about the value of keeping one’s word:

Korczak Ziol~kowski did not have an easy childhood, as he often was treated badly and he learned to do hard physical labor in heavy construction. At age sixteen (16) he went to a technical school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Korczak began to make wood furniture, at age 18. He made a grandfather’s clock from fifty-five (55) pieces of Santo Domingo mahogany . Korzak never had an art lesson, but after carving wood furniture, he began to carve wood sculptures. He was a born artist, and people liked his work.

Ziol~kowski moved to West Hartford, Connecticut, and sold his commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York. In fact, in 1939, at age thirty-one (31), his marble sculpture of Paderewski won first prize at the New York World’s Fair. During the same summer, he assisted Gutzon Borglum in the carving of the Mt. Rushmore Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota, near Rapid City.

In 1939, Chief Henry Standing Bear (1874-1963) heard of Ziol~kowski’s work on Rushmore and wrote him a letter saying:

My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes too.

Artist's rendition of what the completed monument wil look like.

Hereditary Chief Henry Standing Bear of the Brule Band wanted Ziol~kowski to build a mountain memorial to Chief Crazy Horse in the sacred Black Hills. Ziol~kowski visited Pine Ridge Reservation, in 1940, and met Chief Henry Standing Bear. This visit would eventually change his life.

When World War II broke out, the now thirty-four (34) year old Korczak Ziol~kowski volunteered to serve and ended up being wounded at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, France (in 1944). On May 3, 1947, after recovering from his war injuries, Korczak (age 39) moved from New England to the Black Hills, and began to search for a suitable mountain for his sculpture. Korczak thought the Wyoming Tetons would be the best choice, where the rock would be better for carving, but the Lakota wanted the memorial in the sacred Black Hills on a 600-foot high mountain. This monument was to be the largest sculpture in the world. When completed, it would be 563 feet high by 641 feet long. Crazy Horse’s head would be large enough to contain all the 60 foot high heads of the Presidents at Mount Rushmore.

Korczak was born on September 6th and Crazy Horse had died thirty-one (31) years before, on September 6th, 1877. Ziol~kowski was exactly thirty-one (31) years old when he was first contacted by Chief Henry Standing Bear. To the Sioux this was an omen. Crazy Horse was said to have told his people that he would one day return to them in stone. Korczak had worked on Mount Rushmore, another plus in his favor. The chief and Ziol~kowski struck a bargain which has not been broken to this day.

A young girl named Ruth Ross was born on June 26, 1926. Later, in her twenties, she read about Ziol~kowski’s work, and she came to volunteer her help with Korczak's project. Ruth, then twenty-two (22), was eighteen (18) years younger than Ziol~kowski. On June 3, 1948, the first blast was made and the memorial was dedicated to the Native American Indian people, Korczak Ziol~kowski was now forty (40) years old. By 1949 Korczak had only $174.00 to his name, and was worried where he would get the money to pay for his project. The money came from people that believed in his dream, and their contributions made it possible for him to continue his work. By Thanksgiving, in the year 1950, Ruth Ross (age 24) married Korczak Ziol~kowski (age 42) and they had ten children (five boys and five girls). Korczak taught his entire family mountain carving skills.

The Crazy Horse Memorial became the Ziol~kowski family’s life work. No one knew what Crazy Horse looked like, but this memorial was built to his spirit.

In the early 1960’s Korczak underwent the first, in a series of four, back operations. His back was weakened from his youth and got worse as he slaved away transforming the mountain into his vision of Crazy Horse. Many think the jackhammer he used in this work also was a factor. By 1980 six of Ziol~kowski’s discs had been removed. In 1982, Korczak underwent a quadruple heart by-pass operation and returned to supervise work on his seventy-fourth (74th) birthday. His children painted a new outline for the horse’s head. They had their second land exchange approved by the federal government. Five hundred (500) Order of the Arrow Boy Scouts were camped near the mountain, at this time. At this point, Korczak Ziol~kowski was an old man with health problems. He died unexpectedly on October 20, 1982 (at age 74), with his wife and ten children at his bedside. Korczak believed that if you have a dream and were willing to work hard enough, that dream can be accomplished. He also felt that each person’s place in the world is important no matter whether you are a bank president or a ditch digger. Korczak’s life had been difficult from the day his parents died.

Even in death his last thoughts were of his "dream." His parting words were:

You must work on the mountain - but go slowly so you do it right

His wife Ruth and his children honored these words. In 1983-1984, Ruth supervised the building of the new wing of their museum, which was built by his family.

Through the years many bequests have been given to the Crazy Horse Memorial and from 1988-1992 the United States West Foundation donated $50,000 to the Crazy Horse Memorial Indian Scholarship Program designed to help students from South Dakota’s nine reservations. A Michigan man gave $60,000 on August 1983 near the date which would have been the late Korczak Ziol~kowski’s 75th birthday. The check was found in the donation box in their museum. The Michigan contributor, like Korczak, began with nothing and was impressed with their product and refusal to take federal funding.

The Federal Government offered ten million dollars in potential funding twice, but were turned down. Korczak felt that the government would not remain committed to the cultural and educational goals, which he knew would take more than his own lifetime to complete, and there were all those Indian treaties that had been broken in the past.

    Korczak’s other sculptures have found good homes:

  • "The Noah Webster" carving (in Tennessee marble) was a gift to West Hartford, Connecticut.

  • In 1962, President John F. Kennedy was given a mahogany sculpture of "Chief Standing Bear."

  • In 1994, Korczak’s "Fighting Stallions" were chosen for a memorial in front of the South Dakota State Capital, dedicated to eight plane crash victims, including Gov. George Michalson, who helped his father, the Governor at the time, get off the first blast on Crazy Horse Mountain on June 3, 1948.

  • His "Wild Bill Hickok" granite sculpture was a gift to the town of Deadwood, South Dakota. This piece was originally carved in 1951.

  • In 1984, Pope John Paul II was given a bronze version of the "Crazy Horse" statue in 1.1,200th scale.

  • In 1993, Monique Ziol~kowski and her daughter, Heidi, presented a 48" X 50" relief of Korczak’s "President John F. Kennedy" (a bas relief), created in 1967, to President Clinton.

  • In 1997, Ruth Ziol~kowski and their daughter, Monique, presented a bronze version of the Paderewski bust to Pope John Paul II, at a Vatican audience. This was a replica of the first place winning sculpture at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was originally carved in carrara marble, in 1935.

In 1987, five years after Korczak Ziol~kowski’s death, his family celebrated the 40th Anniversary of his dream. At this time, approximately 630,000 tons of granite had been removed from the mountain.

In 1990, Korchak and Ruth Ziol~kowski received Reconcilliation Awards for their life-long dedication to the Crazy Horse Memorial humanitarian project.

By 1997, the year my husband and I made our second visit to this site, the face of Crazy Horse was finally taking shape with fine details. For ten years after Ziolkowski’s death, his wife and children still carry on his dream. On our 1997 trip to Crazy Horse, South Dakota, during the Fiftieth Anniversary of Korczak’s arrival in the Black Hills, we saw Ruth Ziol~kowski (age 77) in a restaurant during lunch. She looked to be an unassuming, kind woman. She is carrying on the wishes of her late husband, a man who knew the importance of a promise and a dream. Their children and grandchildren have agreed to continue that dream to its completion. Seven of their children remain active participants.

I am also reminded that there is a controversy about this monument. However, one must remember that this work was commissioned by Chief Henry Standing Bear, an elder of the Brule Band. He had a vision that became the vision of the Ziol~kowski family. The sculpture was approved back in 1947. To discount this effort would be to discount the name of Chief Henry Standing Bear and Korczak Ziol~kowski who quite literally gave his life's blood to this dream. I have always been taught "to speak ill of the dead is a sin." The chief and the sculptor are not alive to defend themselves.

I remember the bullet holes in the plaque at the entrance. My thought were that someone did not understand. Unfortunately, no matter what one does there will always be someone who will try to negate it. A dream was born, a dream is still being pursued. Dreams are food for the soul,and they are sacred to the dreamers.

June 3, 2007 will mark the 60th year since the first blast in 1948. We plan to make a trip to see this memorial again this summer.

Be a man noble or peasant - let him be known by his deeds, his dreams, and his family.


To learn more about this subject CLICK ON THE BUTTON ABOVE


DeWall, Robb. Carving a Dream. Crazy Horse, S.D.: Korczak’s Heritage, Inc., 1997 (50th Anniversary Edition.

Pasziewicz, Mieczyslaw and Jerzy Kulczycki. Herby Rodow Polskich. London: Orbis Books, 1990.

For more information about joining the Crazy Horse Grass Roots Club write:

Crazy Horse Memorial
Avenue of the Chiefs
Crazy Horse, S.D. 57730-9506

To read more about this project visit these internet sites at:


Crazy Horse (1841-1877)

The Story of Crazy Horse Monument

2003 Article About this site in the Rapid City Journal


For information about Korczak Ziol~kowski’s Bronzes:
Korchak Ziol~kowski's Bronzes
Korczak Ziolkowski and his family
Crazy Horse Memorial

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