She promised her sculptor husband before he died in 1982 that she would continue work on the controversial Crazy Horse Memorial being carved into the Black Hills. Now, Ruth Ziolkowski has passed on herself, on May 21, 2014 at age 87.
Ruth Carolyn Ross came to South Dakota’s Black Hills from Connecticut in 1948, according to the Associated Press. She and other youth had volunteered to help sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski begin the carving of the Crazy Horse Memorial. The two were married on Thanksgiving Day in 1950—he was 42 and she was 24, according to AP.
Korczak originally took on the project at the request of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, who wrote a letter saying, “We would like the white man to know the red men have great heroes also.” He was referring to Mount Rushmore.
“He decided it would be well worth his life carving a mountain, not just as a memorial to the Indian people,” Ruth Ziolkowski told AP in 2006. “He felt by having the mountain carving, he could give back some pride. And he was a believer that if your pride is intact you can do anything in this world you want to do.”
The carving of Mount Rushmore into the sacred Black Hills was controversial and carving a likeness of Crazy Horse is no different, especially to Crazy Horse descendants who feel that Chief Standing Bear did not have the right to ask for such a thing to be done.
Elaine Quiver, a descendant of Crazy Horse, told Voice of America in 2003 that Lakota culture requires consensus among family members, but nobody asked his descendants.
“They don’t respect our culture, because we didn’t give permission for someone to carve the sacred Black Hills where our burial grounds are,” Quiver told Voice of America. “They were there for us to enjoy, and they were there for us to pray. But it wasn’t meant to be carved into images, which is very wrong for all of us. The more I think about it, the more it’s a desecration of our Indian culture. Not just Crazy Horse, but all of us.”
Mrs. Z, as Ruth was known, was told by her husband before his death: “You must work on the mountain—but go slowly so you do it right.” And that became her life’s mission.
“To her, it was simply a way of life and she lived each day with a sense of purpose and a strong spirit. Ruth possessed the inner strength and iron-will needed to persevere through difficult and challenging times and she faced adversity with courage and conviction,” reads her bio on the memorial website. “Ruth’s legacy is one defined by faith and fortitude that anything is possible if you are willing to work hard enough and never give up.”
The website still points out that due to the uncertainty of donations and weather concerns they cannot be sure of when the carving will be complete—it actually states that the “Crazy Horse Memorial is a project that will never end.”