For a few years, I had a job that might have been the best job ever. My job was basically taking kids on trips to National Parks all over the country. It was me, a couple of camp counselors, and 10-12 kids in a van that smelled like campfire, unwashed teenagers, and adventure. We would set out for one or two weeks at a time, and try to have as much fun as possible while hopefully keeping everyone alive. One of the most ambitious trips we took was a tour of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks–A very long drive from our sweet little slice of paradise in western Michigan. There were a few milestones and scheduled reservations we had to keep, but for the most part, we had a lot of freedom. There was an envelope with “discretionary spending” money that we could use as we saw fit, but when it was gone, it was gone. There were some landmarks we wanted to see on our trip out west, and one was Mount Rushmore. We were all very UNDERwhelmed by Rushmore… It seemed like a giant, crappy, overpriced gift shop next to a sculpture that everyone expected to be a lot bigger. But whatever… I suppose you have to see it if you’re driving by.
So when we came to Crazy Horse Memorial fifteen-or-so miles down the road, the smelly democracy of that van was less than enthusiastic about dropping some of our discretionary spending money early on in the trip just to pay to get in to see another monument… Especially one which we could already see from the road to the parking lot. By the time we figured out that we really didn’t feel like paying to get in, we were sort of stuck in the line to enter. We explained our situation to the man collecting the entrance fee, and we asked if we could just turn around and exit. And he did something I will never forget. He said, “I’ll tell you what… Why don’t you all just come in and enjoy the park. See if you believe in what we’re doing here. And if you feel like it was worth the price of admission, you can pay on the way out.”
It didn’t take long until most of us were in tears. We learned the story of a Polish-American sculptor named Korczak Ziolkowski who was commissioned by chiefs of the Lakota Tribe to create a monument honoring Native Americans. Chief Henry Standing Bear originally wanted Crazy Horse–the Sioux warrior who defeated Custer, never signed a treaty, refused to learn English, and never left his home in the plains–to be carved into Rushmore with the others. When that didn’t happen, he and others approached Korczak to create a sculpture of Crazy Horse on a site known as Thunder Mountain. Standing Bear wrote him and said, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.” The sculpture was originally going to be about 100 feet tall on the top of the mountain, but Ziolkowski was an amazing dreamer. He decided to sculpt the whole mountain, and had dreams of a university and a hospital near the site. The sculpture was an immense undertaking, and it dwarfs Rushmore. The faces of all four presidents could fit in Crazy Horse’s head.
The sculpture shows Crazy Horse (whom there is no actual picture of) pointing to the distance. The story goes that after broken treaties with the Native Americans and attempts to force his people off of their land and onto reservations, a traitor sarcastically asked Crazy Horse (who refused to relocate to a reservation), “Where are your lands now?” And to this Crazy Horse replied, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Ziolkowski postponed the project during WWII, enlisted, and was wounded on Omaha Beach. When he returned home, he built a cabin near the mountain and started working. He married his wife Ruth, and they had ten kids together. After Korczak died in 1982, Ruth took over the dream of completing the mountain. We were able to meet her and talk to her as we walked around the campus of the Crazy Horse Memorial. She said that they didn’t have so many children because they loved kids… It was because “they needed the help.” When I met her, Ruth hugged me. She was already in her 70’s, but she hugged me with a strength that startled me. Seven of their ten kids still work on on the mountain. Ruth died in 2014, but before she died, she was asked about the burden of running the family business, and she said, “If you don’t have any faith, if you don’t have any imagination, if you don’t have a dream — what are you doing here?” <–This is a good question for all of us to ask ourselves.
The art, the sculpture, the massive undertaking of transforming a mountain into a monument… All of these things were moving in their own ways. But what was REALLY inspiring was the story. The story of a man who connected with the story of an oppressed people… A man who climbed up hundreds of steps every day, weighed down with explosives and sculpting tools… A man who worked himself to death in the pursuit of a vision… And a family who carried on his dream. Needless to say, we paid the price of admission on our way out. But an amazing thing happened when we stopped to pay: Teenagers–those sweet, stinky kids in that van–opened up their wallets and pulled out their own personal money. They were so moved by the story and the vision of that place that they used their own limited resources (earmarked for candy and sodas at stops for gas) to give to something they believed in. I will never forget that moment… when teenagers pulled out $20 bills to give to something that inspired them.
There are a few reasons why I’m telling you about this…
You should go there. This should go without saying, but just in case you missed it, I want to state that clearly. It is not just a place to stop while driving to somewhere else… It is worth its own trip. If you have to choose between Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, the decision is not even close. There are memorials to the white heroes of American history all over the place… The more we learn about the stories of oppressed people, the more awake we become. The stories of the ones who lost wars are important stories to know… Stories of people like Crazy Horse, who said, “One does not sell the earth upon which the people walk.”
- I’m really stressed out by the state of religion and politics right now. If I’m being honest, it has got me down. And if you’re like me, you might value a story of people working hard on something they believe in, while knowing that they will probably never see the work completed in their lifetime. Sometimes it feels like speaking truth to the reality of how messed up things are is like trying to turn a mountain into a monument… The political system, systemic racism, people passing laws to legalize discrimination of people who are LGBT, lawmakers voting to make the Bible the “State Book” of Tennessee… I’ll never see the mountain finished in my lifetime. Probably not in my kids’ lifetime either. But as Ruth Ziolkowski said before she died, “The important thing is that we never stop. That’s the main thing. And if you looked at it as strictly a view of being finished, you could get awfully distracted waiting for that day to come. This way, you’re pleased with every little step of progress that you make.”
- I think this is a cool way to think about GIVING. I think of this story sometimes when I give to things I believe in, but it was also on my mind when I decided to give people the opportunity to help support me and this blog. Two different times, the federal government offered Ziolkowski $10 million to help fund the project in exchange for turning it into something like Mount Rushmore. But he refused. He didn’t want anyone to be forced to pay for something that they didn’t believe in. It’s a very cool, libertarian way of looking at things. There are always going to be people who you let into the park who don’t pay on the way out. There are always going to be people who listen to NPR, but never give. I have almost 10,000 people who subscribe to this blog, and just over 40 of them have decided to become Patrons. And this is not to try to guilt people into supporting this blog… It’s to hopefully encourage you (and remind me) to give to the things that inspire us. Whether that thing is a Native American monument, or NPR, or a Church, or a political campaign, or a summer camp, or a person playing the guitar on a subway, or even a blogger of modest means who keeps dropping interesting posts in your inbox… So to speak.
It might sound crazy to invest in something you’ll never see come to fruition in your lifetime, but the really important problems were always going to take more than one generation to solve. And if enough of us keep chipping away, we can do something monumental.
So thanks again to all my Patrons and supporters. A really cool person named Jaemin Jang is one of my newest Patrons. If you’d like to become a Patron and help support the mission of this blog, you can do that RIGHT HERE or on PayPal. I know that not everyone is in a position to do that, so other ways you can support is by sharing my stuff, or by liking my Facebook Page or following me on Twitter. Either way, I am so honored that people are reading things I am writing. THANK YOU!