Across South Dakota Monday, Native American Day was celebrated in drum beats, song and gatherings dedicated to Native American culture and history. But nowhere was it celebrated more vigorously or joyfully than at Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer where Native American Day celebrations began in 1990.
On October 8 that year, Governor George Mickelson joined Native American leaders at Crazy Horse Memorial to celebrate a new day — and a new call for respect and reconciliation.
That call was renewed Monday on familiar ground. And Jason Murry, vice president of education for the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, said the memorial — located in the southern Black Hills, long sacred land to the Lakota people — is the perfect place for such gatherings.
“From the very beginning this place has been a place, a sacred place, first for the Lakota people, but then after the beginning of this project for all people,” Murry said. “This is a place where stories converge, where identities converge, where people come together. And that overarching mission of reconciliation that is at the core of this place, is bound up in Native American Day that history going back 25 years.”
“The people of South Dakota took it upon themselves to change the name of this day,” Murry said. “And an understanding with the idea that American Indian people and their world view mattered. It’s still immediate; it’s still relevant to celebrate that. So here we are, 25 years later.”
Hundreds gathered, sat or stood under bright skies, buffeted by strong winds to watch traditional hoop dancing and her words that matter to people of all races.
Opening minds matters here and has since even before sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski began the carving the massive sculpture of Crazy Horse in 1948, Murry said.
“When Chief Henry Standing Bear asked Korczak to come to the Black Hills to carve a memorial to Native people, both men knew that the project was to have an educational component,” Murry said. “In fact, Standing Bear in his letter conveyed that he wanted the world to know that American Indians had heroes, also. And that statement in its very foundation speaks of an educational impulse.”
That impulse led Ziolkowski to develop a three-pronged mission for the monument — honoring Native people through the sculpture, developing an Indian Museum of North America and an Indian University of North America.
All three are being realized and fulfilled, Murry said.
Promoting and assisting in Native American education continues to be one of the key missions at Crazy Horse. And to strengthen that, each year the foundation names an educator of the year.
USD professor Charlie Luecke received the honor this year for 40 years of work with Native students that includes preparing them to succeed in college. Along with his Native student education, recruitment and support work at USD, Luecke is on the faculty of the Indian University of North American at Crazy Horse where a summer program helps prepare Native students for the transition to college.
“I’ve been blessed to work with Native students and students in general for the last 40 years, helping those students learn how to be stronger students, so when they go off to college, they can be successful,” Luecke said.
A big part of that work — increasingly big and important — has come at Crazy Horse, in summer educational programs and internship offerings.
“The program here at Crazy Horse makes this not just a place where students can take a full semester of college classes; this is a living and learning community,” Luecke said.
Success for Luecke isn’t just encouraging and preparing Native students for college, it’s seeing them succeed there.
“We truly want our students to be engaged in the college experience, as I like to call it, to soar with the eagles,” Luecke said.