SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Ruth Ziolkowski, who carried on her late husband's dream of honoring Native Americans by carving the massive likeness of warrior Crazy Horse into the Black Hills in South Dakota, has died. She was 87.
Ziolkowski, a soft-spoken visionary, oversaw the ongoing project until she entered hospice care in April, a month after her cancer diagnosis. She died Wednesday night in Rapid City, memorial spokesman Mike Morgan said.
"Ruth Ziolkowski, the remarkable matriarch of Crazy Horse Memorial, was loved and admired by millions who were inspired by her example to 'never forget your dreams,'" said Jack Marsh, a member of Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation. "Ruth, as much as anyone, advanced reconciliation between the Native and non-Native people of the United States."
Then Ruth Carolyn Ross, she came to South Dakota's Black Hills from Connecticut in 1948, with other young people who volunteered to help sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski begin the carving that year. The two were married Thanksgiving Day in 1950 at the site. He was 42 and she was 24.
The sculptor took on the project at the invitation of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear who, referring to nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial, wrote a letter to him saying, "We would like the white man to know the red men have great heroes also."
Korczak Ziolkowski, who helped Gutzon Borglum at Mount Rushmore in 1939, contemplated the offer before accepting.
"He decided it would be well worth his life carving a mountain, not just as a memorial to the Indian people," Ruth Ziolkowski told The Associated Press 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."
Crazy Horse was a legendary Oglala Lakota warrior who helped lead the 1876 attack against Gen. George Custer's 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. A soldier's bayonet killed him the following year in Nebraska.
Mrs. Z, as she was known around the 1,000-acre complex, took over the project upon Korczak Ziolkowski's 1982 death and tried to heed his last words: "Crazy Horse must be finished. You must work on the mountain — but slowly, so you do it right."
She helped lead the effort to shift the focus from the horse to carving the warrior's 90-foot-tall face, a move credited with an infusion of donations and worldwide interest in the project. It was dedicated in 1998 at the 50th anniversary ceremony.
Although the carving remains slow-going, the site now includes a welcome center, Native American museum, educational and training area, restaurant, gift shop and the Indian University of North America, which will host 32 students this summer who take college courses and work at the complex.
While others worked on the mountain, Ziolkowski did most of her work in the cabin where her and her husband's 10 children were born. Her desk was simple — the same linoleum-covered table all 12 family members sat around during meals — as were the dresses and smocks Ziolkowski made to wear with her white moccasins and hair bands.
Despite working long hours, she was always willing to greet visitors with a smile, pose for a photo and ask where they were from.
"She's very detailed but also very visionary. She's an astute business person and she lives this project 24/7. It is her passion," Rollie Noem, Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation chief operating officer, told the AP in 2006. "She's not only kept things together but she's overseen all of the growth that has happened and the expansion and development from all fronts."
The memorial draws more than a million visitors to the southern Black Hills annually and brings in millions of dollars every year, mainly through admission fees.
The family has followed Korczak Ziolkowski's admonition to refuse government help and rely on private enterprise. The memorial has received large donations, but there also have been numerous smaller gifts, even from children's lemonade sales.
Family members won't estimate when the carving will be complete, saying it depends largely on donations, harsh winters that limit how much can be done each year — and that the project is unlike any other.
Much of the granite rock has been blown away to create a blank canvass, though the only defined carving is the warrior's head. But it's massive: All four 60-foot heads on Mount Rushmore could fit into it, according to the memorial.
The memorial is envisioned to eventually show Crazy Horse astride a horse and pointing east to the plains in a carving that will be 641 feet long and 563 feet high — higher than the Washington Monument and almost twice the size of the Statue of Liberty.
"You can't just have the dream. You've got to work for that dream," Ruth Ziolkowski said in 2006. "This is a team effort. It wouldn't be here if we didn't have a lot of great people."
Many of her children and grandchildren are heavily involved in the project and have promised to keep the project going.
Ziolkowski, who grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, will be buried in a stone coffin at the base of the mountain next to her husband.