After reading an article in the Rapid City Journal that pronounced the merit of the award-winning sculptor and illuminated his work, Henry Standing Bear knew that he would contact Korczak Ziolkowski in an attempt to start a dialogue about the possibility of carving a mountain to honor Native American people. It did not take long before Standing Bear had drafted and mailed a letter to Korczak – a man whom he had never met, but in whom he saw the potential for bringing the long-imagined carving to fruition.
“This is a matter of long standing in my mind which must be brought before the public soon . . . We do not believe Borglum is the only living man that can do that kind of work.”
And so reads a portion of the invitation letter, which is dated November 7th, 1939, and is postmarked from Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Both men had connections to Borglum – Standing Bear as an advocate for a Native American presence at Rushmore whose advocacy was met with denial and Ziolkowski as an assistant to Borglum, who left the position after working during the summer. Accordingly, both men knew the possibility of what a carving in the Black Hills could mean, but neither knew each other until Standing Bear reached out to Ziolkowski. The “we” Standing Bear references in his letter represents the support for the project that he had successfully marshalled from several of his fellow Lakota leaders. And while Standing Bear had been successful in gaining such support, he had been less successful in finding a man with the skill and the will to take on such a project. In Ziolkowski, he hoped that he had found just such a man.
“Perhaps you can help me in some way?”
Standing Bear sent the letter – not knowing if the man who would receive it would reply or even think twice about the invitation contained within. The fact that in 1939, still an unsettling time for Native and non-Native relations in this country, a Lakota elder and Chief would reach out to a non-Native on the other side of the country and invite him to carve a memorial for Native peoples in a sacred land was amazing. Equally amazing is the fact that the non-Native would eventually reply, begin an ongoing correspondence with a Native man whom he had never met, and even consider taking on such a monumental project. In many ways, the invitation of Standing Bear to Korczak and the subsequent relationship that developed between the two men serve as an example of what reconciliation can be – a cross-cultural relationship that is born from a common vision, which is advanced through simple, direct communication and an earnest desire to better people’s lives.
“Please write me at your earliest convenience advising whether or not you care to correspond on this matter.”
So ends the initial letter, which is signed “Yours Truly, Henry Standing Bear.” After this letter, a second letter that reiterated the invitation would follow. This letter contained the line that changed Korczak’s life forever….”My fellow chiefs and I would like the White Man to know the Red Man has great heroes also.” From then on, a great many letters would pass between the two men. Over the next six years this correspondence would develop into a friendship and lead to a humanitarian project of great magnitude .
This article is the fourth installment of a periodic chronology that will be published by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation on the history of the Memorial.
–Dr. Jason Murray for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation