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America's History in the Making

Egalitarian America

In the Video

Edited Hands on History interview with Donovin Sprague.

Donovin Sprague, a descendent of the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, is director of education at Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He also teaches Native American history at Black Hills State University, Oglala Lakota College, and the Indian University of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial. He was interviewed on location at the base of the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Q: How long has this monument been in the works?

Sprague: The first blast occurred in 1948, when Chief Henry Standing Bear asked sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create this monument. Mr. Standing Bear thought it should be located in the Black Hills, which is the center of the Lakota universe. The face was finished in 1990. There's no set time for the completion, due to finances and weather and the sheer size of it.

Q: Do you see this memorial as a tribute to something larger than the Lakota nation?

Sprague: I see the memorial as all-encompassing for all Native American tribes. Here we share tribal cultural history to create a bigger picture and a better story for all. Crazy Horse exemplifies the bravery, generosity, respect, wisdom, and circle of life, which is all-encompassing for all Native American tribes.

Q: How was Crazy Horse chosen out of so many prominent Native American historical figures?

Sprague: Crazy Horse was something of a mystic. There are a lot of things about him that are unknown. Since there is no proven photograph of Crazy Horse, the model we used was based on interviews with people who came to Crazy Horse Mountain in 1948. Some were survivors of Little Big Horn: They knew he had hair down to his waist, stood about five-foot, eight inches, was of medium build, and had a scar on his left cheek from a bullet wound.

Q: What symbolism is represented in the sculpture?

Sprague: Crazy Horse was known to wear one or two feathers. He never wore a full bonnet. Eagle feathers would be accumulated based on bravery, generosity, respect, wisdom, and your deeds or war record. So, he would've been entitled to a very large headdress; but he was a very humble man, and he preferred to wear only a few feathers of a red-tail hawk. He also wore a sacred stone behind his ear, which was a protective stone to protect him from enemy bullets.

The Lakota were known for their horsemanship: They were known as the greatest horsemen the United Stated cavalry had ever encountered. So, it's very fitting to have Crazy Horse on his horse. Crazy Horse is on horseback pointing towards his statement, "My lands are where my people lie buried." In Lakota, "Tachuka Wheetko" is Crazy Horse's name: It means "His Horse is Wild," so it doesn't refer to the man himself.

Q: What is your personal relationship to Crazy Horse?

Sprague: My great-great-great-grandfather, High Backbone—or Chief Hump, as he was known—was the brother to Rattling Blanket Woman, the biological mother of Crazy Horse. He was an uncle to Crazy Horse. So, in Lakota, it is appropriate for me to call Crazy Horse my grandfather.

Q: Are there stories within your family or your extended family talking about him personally as a man?

Sprague: We have a lot of stories about Crazy Horse and Hump that the world has not yet heard. Fictitious information has been coming out for a lot of years about Crazy Horse. Some of the stories from the family are being released, but it's only through careful sessions within the family that those decisions are made.

Q: Are there both personal histories within your family as well as larger oral histories within the greater Lakota people about Crazy Horse?

Sprague: One example is a well-documented fight in which High Backbone, or Hump, was killed in 1870. It entered all of the Lakota winter counts as the most important event of the year. In that fight with the Shoshone, it's said that Crazy Horse advised it was not a good day to fight because of foggy and slippery conditions. But Hump didn't want to lose face, so he rode in and insisted that they fight anyway. (What had happened was that Hump's wife was killed by the Shoshone at that time.) So Hump generated a lot of bravery and courage, and he went on his own to ride right down through the middle of the Shoshone. Crazy Horse followed, and, unfortunately, Hump was killed. Crazy Horse went back for that body, and we know where Hump's resting place is today. He was taken to a very special place. But nobody knows where Crazy Horse is buried.

Q: Why aren't there any photographs or images of Crazy Horse?

Sprague: As a holdout, he was in areas that were unsettled. If he were to be photographed, it would've been at Fort Robinson between May and September of 1877. At that time, the photographer Hamilton was in this area, but the one picture that a lot of people say is Crazy Horse is in a studio with a tile floor. No such studio existed at Fort Robinson at that time. Crazy Horse is also on record as saying he did not want his photograph taken; he did not want his spirit captured.

Q: Why did the sculptor and elders decide to make the memorial on such a grand scale?

Sprague: A reason for the large size of this monument might have something to do with Mount Rushmore. Henry Standing Bear said he would like to have the white man know that the red man had great heroes too. So I imagine it was something like, "Let's do something a little bigger and grander."

Q: What is the process of carving a mountain?

Sprague: Because of the huge size, our technicians now use computers to pinpoint where each particular blast is going to occur. On the mountain, the crew drills into the rock to plant the explosives. Some days, there might be a couple blasts in a day, and then there might not be another blast for a couple weeks. After several years, you could see the crew getting down to the general size of the horse's head. Once they got the face down to the general size it needed to be, you couldn't see anything, and then all of a sudden they were outlining the nose and it came together very quickly.

Q: Has there been any opposition to the memorial?

Sprague: Some of the opposition to Crazy Horse Memorial is based on the dynamiting of rocks, because rocks are sacred. They're used to pray with, they're used in sweat lodges and in various ceremonies. It would be difficult to start such a project in this day and age. But it's not a project that's going to halt or stop because of environmental concerns or the blasting of rocks. And nobody opposed the recent blasting of and removal of rocks for our highway here, which was under construction for a year.

Q: How did you come to work here at the memorial?

Sprague: I was the head of Indian education for the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. At that time, I contacted the organizers about their educational plans. I offered to come in and pave the way for higher education. We offer degrees here through Black Hills State University with credit through a state university. We also offer workshops and techniques like beadwork or other arts and crafts, plus field trips and historical tours. The things we do at Crazy Horse Memorial are geared to teacher education. I offer a class through Black Hills State University called "South Dakota Indian Studies," which is required of all teachers in the state of South Dakota before they can enter the classroom. It certifies them for the American Indian studies requirement set by the state's education department.

Q: What is the Mountains of History Project?

Sprague: The Mountains of History project is a master's degree course in history. We spend one weekend at Mount Rushmore to learn American history through the viewpoint of the presidents. Then, we spend a weekend at Crazy Horse to talk about the Native American perspective.

Q: What are some of the educational activities offered at the cultural center?

Sprague: We offer higher-education classes on a semester basis. We have a hands-on table in the cultural center for young people to examine things. Presenters can explain the uses of raw materials, hides, buckskin, the tanning process. Students can also witness the making of a lot of the arts and crafts by Native American artisans representing Lakota, Navajo, Choctaw, Nez Perce, Iroquois, Chippewa, Winnebago, Arapaho, northern Cheyenne, and Black Feet. In the cultural center, we offer free tables to Native American artists from all tribes to sell their works here. And we have a series of summer speakers—every Thursday.

Q: How have Native Americans across the country received the memorial?

Sprague: I've traveled out to a lot of Native American tribes across the United States, and they've talked about their support for the Crazy Horse Memorial. When I came here, we had two flags: Pine Ridge and Rosebud. Now, we have approximately eighty tribal flags from across the United States representing about eighty-five percent of the Native population in America. A lot of those flags came with the tribal votes from the councils. Some of them were presented in ceremony, some were sent in.

Q: Why are memorials important?

Sprague: In America, symbols are important: We use them to remember our past, our history, our future, some of our leaders. In any society, symbols are important. No matter what beliefs or values you have, there are symbols in everybody's life.

Q: What would you like people to think about when they come to see the memorial?

Sprague: I would like the tourists to learn about Crazy Horse and the Lakota people. Who they were and why they resisted the United States and the wars they won; the battle of Little Big Horn; the forts that were taken on the Bozeman Trail; the Fetterman fight; Wounded Knee Massacre—all of that tells a whole picture of our people that hasn't always been told correctly. If there was just a cultural center at my reservation, there wouldn't be many people that came and visited. With the Crazy Horse Memorial here, it draws people from all over the world. We can share with these people not only Native American culture, but all cultures. I think it's a great teaching tool that will educate people and erase stereotypes about Native Americans.

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