Crazy Horse Mountain, South Dakota - What is it about the Black Hills that compels people to carve them into monuments? Maybe it's the quality of the granite, maybe the ravishing vistas that guarantee a perfect frame for the sculptor's handiwork - or maybe it's simply the doctrine that a Big Country should have Big Art, which explains why, for more than half a century now, the heads of George, Thomas, Abe and Teddy have been glowering from Mount Rushmore.
But one day even the four presidents will be but figurines compared to Crazy Horse. Since 1947, an eccentric Polish-American sculptor and his descendants have been busy 20 miles away at what was once known as Thunderhead Mountain. When the project is complete (the year 2050 is the guesstimate) the mightiest of all Sioux warriors will burst from the living rock astride a galloping horse, his hair streaming in the wind, crowned by a single feather alone measuring 44 feet in length.
And who cannot be impressed by this endeavour, this "ruin in reverse" epic to the point of lunacy? The Black Hills, I have been told, are visible in a satellite picture of the earth, meaning that one day Crazy Horse will probably become the first human shape discernible to the naked eye of the passing cosmonaut. Already, 8.5 million tons of rock have been removed but they've barely started on his lips. The complete face will not be ready until June 1998 - and that is ahead of schedule, thanks to a string of mild winters. Still more impressive, when I was there last week, some of the sons and heirs of Korczak Ziolkowski were up on the mountaintop, carving and drilling, despite a temperature of minus 12C or less.
But something nags. Yes, Ziolkowski, who died in 1982, had only $174 (pounds 113) in his pocket when he took up the invitation of a Sioux chief to start his venture. Repeatedly he turned down offers of federal help, insisting that if the public wanted to honour so great a hero, individuals and not the government should pay. Yet for all its hugeness, this rendering of the Sioux leader who annihilated General Custer and the Seventh Cavalry at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 is, at best, a gigantic consolation prize; at worst, a condescending act of atonement on the part of a white race that will never give back to the Indian what really matters - his land.
When it is finished Ziolkowski's Crazy Horse tableau will be 563ft tall and 641ft long, the head alone as large as those of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt on Mount Rushmore combined. But many in the seven tribes and 70,000 people of the Great Sioux Nation would exchange a hundred monuments for return of just part of their sacred Black Hills.
Tim Giago, born on the Sioux reservation of Pine Ridge and now publisher of Indian Country Today, the largest Indian newspaper in the US, recounted to me the wretched tale. For the Sioux the Black Hills, ceded in eternity by the US government in 1868 only to be seized back when gold was discovered there six years later, are the land from which their ancestors sprang. "The statue of Crazy Horse is a desecration, just like Mount Rushmore was a defilement. And who is it honouring: a great chief or the Ziolkowskis?"
In 1912, the Sioux began litigation to regain their lands. Finally, in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled they had been wronged, and Washington offered $105m in compensation. The Sioux refused. Today the $105m is worth with interest $350m, but still they refuse. "We lost 7 million acres," Mr Giago says. "All we are asking for back is 1.3 million acres."
Instead the Sioux stand to lose still more. If Congress has its way, funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs - the biggest employer of American Indians - will be reduced by 10 per cent, or $168m next year, part of the Republican effort to balance the budget. Let them eat blackjack, poker and slots, runs the unspoken reasoning, fuelled by reports that some Indian tribes are making a fortune out of reservation gambling. If so, why is Shannon County in South Dakota, where Pine Ridge is to be found and where a makeshift casino rears from the endless prairie, still the poorest county in the entire USA?
I returned from Crazy Horse Mountain to Rapid City, jumping-off point of a visit to the Black Hills. Wandering down a dark Main Street, I stopped at a shop displaying panoramic photographs of the Black Hills, as well as one taken in 1948 of gnarled Sioux elders, said to have been at the Little Big Horn battle. Just then a man shambled over to me, wrapped against the biting cold. He was at least 50, his black ponytail streaked with grey, unmistakably Indian. He struck up a conversation, before pointing to one of the leaders: "My grandfather, Little Eagle." Well - who knows. But there was no ambiguity about his next remark: "Gotta a dollar, just to buy a drink ?" Such has been the descent of the American Indian: from Crazy Horse and the freedom of the plains, to dingy reservations and drunks on the sidewalks of Rapid City. These are facts not even the biggest statue can change.
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