Sitting Bull’s Lost Horses?

The Nokota Horse Conservancy believes that the wild horses in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park badlands descend from horses surrendered by Chief Sitting Bull in 1881. Park officials disagree.

Story and photography by Ryan T. Bell

The badlands of North Dakota are a dented-up country of pyramid buttes, finger ridge lines and zigzag ravines carved by the Little Missouri River. The bizarre landscape has a history of invoking mixed emotions. A cavalry soldier from the 1860s called it hell, with the fires put out. Theodore Roosevelt, who ranched in the badlands, described their “savage desolation” as reminiscent of the macabre poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. Since the badlands were incorporated into what would become Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in 1935, people have been more inclined to view them in a scenic light.

Nevertheless, contention abounds over the national park’s herd of wild horses. In one camp, there’s the Nokota Horse Conservancy, an organization that believes the park’s herd descends from horses that once belonged to Chief Sitting Bull. And in the opposing camp are the land managers of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They refute the connection, arguing that the concept of a “Nokota” breed is a fabrication. Are Nokotas legitimate heirs of Lakota horse culture, or just illegitimate castoffs of Theodore Roosevelt National Park?

Brothers Frank and Leo Kuntz are easy to tell apart. Frank sports a walrus mustache, and Leo wears suspenders. They grew up on their family’s ranch, located on the rolling grasslands of North Dakota. Long before they helped found the Nokota Horse Conservancy, the Kuntzes were just thrill-seeking ranch boys who liked fast horses.

“We didn’t get into it to save an old strain of horses,” Leo says. “We got into it because we were cross breeders.”

The Kuntzes competed in Great American horse racing, an event where horsemen rode pell-mell over a mile-and-a-half of broken country. The risk of injury was so high that the sport earned the nickname “suicide racing.” To be successful, a rider needed a horse that was as rugged as the badlands themselves. So the Kuntz brothers set out on a quest to find horses with good “bone,” a catchall term they seem to use for strength, stamina and smarts.

In 1978, Leo bought a pair of horses that had been gathered off Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The horses were surefooted on broken ground, speedy on the open flats, and equipped with deep lungs that didn’t tire easily. They took to cross-country racing like second nature. In 1986, when the park announced another roundup and auction, Frank and Leo took out a bank loan and bought 54 horses, with plans to use them as a breeding unit for producing a specialized line of cross-country horses.

During the 1980s, the park service shifted how it managed wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Tom Tescher, the famed North Dakota rodeo bronc rider, worked with the park to introduce domestic stallions to “improve” the wild herd’s genetics, including a Quarter Horse, an Arabian and a Shire-paint stallion bought at the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale. During roundups, undesirable native horses were culled in order to let the introduced bloodlines flourish. Coincidentally, native horse were the ones the Kuntz brothers wanted to buy. Though it was not Frank and Leo’s initial motive, they salvaged an heirloom bloodline at a moment when the herd’s genetics were about to dramatically shift.

“They don’t write manuals for how to save a breed of horse,” Frank says. “It’s not something we were setup for. It just happened.”

As the brothers took an interest in the history of the horses, they discovered that the park’s herd might have descended from horses surrendered by Chief Sitting Bull, the rebel Lakota leader.

Among the Lakota people, the year 1876 is known as “The Year We Lost Our Horses.” The name seems surprising, considering that in June the Lakota had fought alongside the Cheyenne and Arapaho to defeat General George Armstrong Custer’s cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. But the victory proved bittersweet, as the U.S. Army retaliated with extensive military campaigns, the wholesale slaughter of buffalo to starve rebel tribes into submission, and a Draconian law requiring all natives to surrender their horses. From Oklahoma to Montana, native horses were rounded up, sold off or in some cases slaughtered.

“Make them poor by destruction of their stock, and then settle them on the lands allotted to them,” General Philip Sheridan had said at the outset of the Indian Wars.

In the wake of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Chief Sitting Bull’s rebel band fled into Canada. But after four hard years on the Saskatchewan prairie, they crossed into North Dakota and surrendered at Fort Buford. The U.S. Army treated the Lakotas as prisoners of war. They confiscated their herd of 350 horses, and put them up for sale at the local trading post. Sitting Bull was imprisoned at Fort Yates, South Dakota, and then forced to settle on the Standing Rock Reservation. During his quiet hours, Sitting Bull would draw sketches of his exploits as a warrior mounted on a blue horse, lance in hand and arrows flying through the air.

The Lakota had lost not only their horses, but their freedom, bringing to an end a nomadic way of life that had been their custom for at least a century.

The Nokota Horse Conservancy is based on an assumption that Sitting Bull’s constituted a breed. But, whereas natives like the Nez Perce castrated geldings and used selective breeding to create the Appaloosa horse, the Lakota did not practice any form of active animal husbandry. Still, animal science is complicated and a case could be made that Sitting Bull’s horses constituted a sort of alternate breed classification. To understand how requires first taking a wide-angle look at the history of horses on the northern plains.

Nokota stallions battle for dominance.

Descendants of Spanish horses arrived in the Dakotas sometime in the 18th century. The earliest documented evidence is a journal from 1742, kept by the French fur trader Chevalier Verendrye, who encountered a tribe of “Horse People” somewhere in either South Dakota or Wyoming (his journal is vague). It is unknown whether they were the only natives to have obtained horses by then. According to a pictographic “winter count” calendar handed down for generations, the Lakota people obtained horses during the winter of 1801–02 (the calendar also denotes the first introduction of pinto horses, stolen from the Crow, in 1838–39). Horses quickly permeated Lakota society, such that by the 1830s the artist-ethnographer George Catlin documented a vibrant horse culture in his paintings of the Dakota people.

“The horse came along and transformed our culture,” says Ron His Horse is Thunder, a fifth-generation descendent of Chief Sitting Bull. “We believed that this must be a gift from the creator.”

Archaeological evidence shows that the horse revolutionized native culture during a period called the Plains Nomadic. Previously, natives had lived in large villages, which were characterized by numerous clusters of small-diameter tipi rings. But tipi rings during the Plains Nomadic period were considerably bigger, upwards of 18 feet in diameter. And settlements were located more sporadically across the northern plains, indicating a shift from a sedentary to nomadic lifestyle. Archeologists surmise that horses enabled the natives to cut and carry longer tipi poles, and to roam freely in pursuit of buffalo. Life on the northern plains evolved to rely on the horse.

“Having horses was a symbol of wealth,” says Ron His Horse is Thunder, in a documentary video playing at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame. “The more horses that you had, of course, the better horse thief you were. It took a lot of courage to go into an Indian camp in the night time, or even the day time, and steal their horses. To steal a horse became a very brave thing. Not only did it make you wealthy, it made you a hero with your people.”

The Nokota Horse Conservancy has gone to great lengths to research and document connections between the Nokota breed and native horse culture. Dr. Castle McLaughlin, a founding board member, is curator of North American Ethnography at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. For a recent exhibit, Wiyohpiyata: Lakota Images of the Contested West, she studied the relationship between Lakota warriors and their horses. Blue roans were prized for riding into battle, McLaughlin says, because in Lakota cosmology the cardinal directions were associated with specific colors and supernatural powers. The direction west, “wiyohpiyata,” was the domain of storms and warfare, and its colors were blue and black. Riding a blue roan horse linked a warrior metaphorically to those powers. McLaughlin points to the prevalence of blue roans among the Nokota breed as evidence that the breed’s phenotype is linked to the Lakota people.

“If it is in fact the case, then they’re one of the very few herds in the whole country that can be linked to an historic Indian community,” McLaughlin says.

But did early Lakota horses constitute a breed? By favoring certain characteristics in the horses they stole, traded for and caught in the wild, the Lakota exerted a passive force on the devleopment of wild horses in the badlands. In breed terminology, Nokotas are not a standard breed but a “landrace,” defined in The Genetics of the Horse as “local types which have become uniform through a combination of founder effect, long isolation from other populations and selection within a local environment.”

That definition is evident in the Nokota breed’s entry in the 2009 edition of The Official Horse Breeds Standards Book:

“The social and physical conditions of life in the badlands seem to have encouraged the retention of Spanish and Indian pony characteristics in the animals that survived. Only the hardiest and most intelligent horses were able to withstand the long, frigid winters of western North Dakota and escape capture in the rugged, steep terrain. As a result, the Nokota horses of today retain many of the best features of their early ancestors.”

Not everyone is convinced that Nokotas constitute a horse breed.

“They want them to recognize the bloodline so they can sell more horses,” says Neil Tangen, operator of Peaceful Valley Ranch, a trail riding outfit located inside Theodore Roosevelt National Park. He sees wild bands of horses almost every day. To his eye, tehy look like feral ranch stock. Instead of buying horses rounded up off the park, Tangen sticks with his own proven line of Quarter Horses. He doubts that the park’s horses descend from Sitting Bull’s herd.

“It’s the gift of gab,” Tangen says, “a marketing strategy to sell horses.”

Though a grassroots organization, the Nokota Horse Conservancy does savvy the art of publicity. In 1993, they successfully lobbied North Dakota’s legislature to designate the Nokota as the state’s official equine. In 1999, the conservancy earned 501(c)3 status as a nonprofit organization, which, among other things, enabled people to make tax-deductible donations to pay for summer pasture leases and winter hay. And in April 2013, the conservancy helped pass a state resolution that “…urges the National Park Service to recognize the historical value of the Nokota horse in this state’s ranching and Indian culture and to manage the feral horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in a manner that ensures the preservation of the Nokota bloodline…”

But certain aspects of the Nokota Horse conservancy give it a hucksterish air. The breed name “Nokota” may sound Native American — “Lakota” and “Nocona” are real words — but it is a fabrication. Leo Kuntz came up with it by merging the state name, North Dakota, into one word. Something else odd is that the breed name appears as “Nokota®” in most of the conservancy’s literature. Trademarking is a smart business practice, and most breed associations do so. But the Nokota Horse Conservancy makes prevelant use of the trademark symbol, even inserting it into transcript of verbal testimony given at legal proceedings. It gives the impression of trying too hard to prove the breed’s legitimacy.

Another example of marketing spin is the “Z4” brand the Kuntz horses wear. The brand dates to the turn-of-the-century cow outfit, the HT Ranch, and the “Z4" brand appears on horses in the artwork of Charles M. Russell. The Kuntz brand is misleading, however. Leo tried to register “Z4” with the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, but the brand inspector said they no longer registered brands that incorporated numbers. So Leo registered “L+,” and at branding time he inverts the “L” and positions the “+” in such a way as to look like “Z4.”

Nevertheless, the Nokota Horse Conservancy has done an impressive job of promoting the Nokota breed. The registry includes some 1,000 horses, with Nokota breeders spanning the United States from Washington to New York. Nokotas are performing well in many disciplines, including dressage, hunter-jumpers, trail-riding and as pack stock. The breed association is still young, and it’s potential in Western disciplines is as of yet untapped.

Sitting Bull (Tatonka-I-Yatanka), a Hunkpapa Sioux, 1885.

The crux of the Nokota breed’s legitimacy lies in how you interpret events that transpired after Sitting Bull’s surrender.

At the Fort Buford trading post, 250 of Sitting Bull’s horses were sold to an interesting character in North Dakota history, the French aristocrat Antoine-Amédée-Marie-Vincent Manca Amat de Vallombrosa. Locals called him, simply, the Marquis de Morès. He had a “handsomeness of the Victorian stage-villain variety,” wrote the American historian David McCullough, complete with a waxed mustache and long sideburns. The Marquis was a skilled horsemen, trained at two of Europe’s elite cavalry schools, and his speed with a pistol was attested to by the bodies of two men he had killed in duels.

The Marquis de Morès arrived in North Dakota with a business plan he believed would revolutionize the American beef industry. He would amass a cattle herd, build a slaughtering facility on the range and ship beef east in refrigerated railroad cars (a new invention). By cutting out middlemen at the Chicago stockyards, the Marquis aimed to sell cheaper meat to eastern consumers. He began by fencing 21,000 acres of badlands and stocked it with cattle. To make sure his cowboys were well-mounted, the Marquis de Morès bought 250 of Sitting Bull’s confiscated horses at Fort Buford.

But the Marquis de Morès’ trigger finger toppled his cattle empire. One day, he rode up on some cowboys cutting through his barbed wire fence, an act of protest against him for having fenced-off the open range. When the dust settled, one cowboy was dead, another testament to the Marquis’s speed with a pistol. Years of legal trouble followed, forcing him to liquidate and leave the United States.

Of the Marquis de Morès 250 horses, the historical record confirms the fate of only 60 mares sold to A.C. Huidekoper, owner of the aforementioned HT Ranch. The Nokota Horse Conservancy’s smoking-gun piece of evidence is a reminiscence Huidekoper wrote for a local newspaper about a favorite horse named Croppy.

“His dam belonged to a Sioux Indian warrior who fought at the Custer fight on the Little Big Horn. As proof she was there, she had a bullet through her neck. Notwithstanding her wound she trailed north with the tribes to the Canadian border, where the warriors were relieved of their arms, and the war ponies scattered. Some of these ponies came to the Marquis de Morès at Medora, North Dakota.”

After Huidekoper sold out in 1906, however, the paper trail linking Nokotas to Sitting Bull becomes sparse.

During the Great Depression, it was common practice among area ranchers to treat the badlands as a grazing commons. However, President Roosevelt’s connection to the badlands had sparked a movement to turn them into a national park. Land managers fenced the property, inadvertently enclosing several bands of loose horses.

Were they wild horses or simply ranch stock turned loose on the grazing commons? Today’s park managers believe the latter, citing a 1954 roundup that was aimed at removing all horses from the property.

“Something like 125 horses were brought in, and 99% of them had ranch brands,” says Bill Whitworth, the park’s current Chief of Resource Management.

Tom Tescher was on that roundup. He passed away in 2008, but Tescher appears in a documentary film about the park’s horses that plays at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

“They go back to horses that got away from ranchers,” Tescher said. He added that due to the economic hardships of the Great Depression, repossessed horses were often turned loose in the badlands.

McLaughlin has seen the records from the 1954 roundup , and believes they prove just the opposite. Horses obviously evaded roundup or else there wouldn’t have been any remnants to reproduce. Those, she argues, were certainly wild horses.

“The roundup was held expressly for the local ranchers to reclaim the horses that grazed in the park. They didn’t even try to roundup the wild horses, and I have multiple quotes from ranchers who participated in that roundup.”

Tom Tescher was one of them.

“In private, Tom told Leo and me the opposite,” McLaughlin says. “He knew those horses were descended, in part, from 19th century wild horses. I guess that wasn’t the politically correct position for him to take with the park.”

The reason for Tom’s duplicity, she speculates, was that he felt ambivalent about the wild horses.

“On one hand, he was definitely a rodeo cowboy rancher who loved Quarter Horses. He didn’t like Indian horses. The fact they were wild intrigued him, and the fact he spent most of his life chasing and rounding them up gave him a kind of appreciation for them, as opponents.”

Park superintendent Valerie Naylor considers the conservancy’s claims as circumstantial, at best.

“It’s a romantic idea that some of Sitting Bull’s horses run wild in the park,” Naylor says. “People like the notion and it would be nice if it were true. But it’s not. The evidence shows that they are feral ranch horses that were fenced into the park in the 1940s.”

Naylor says that DNA evidence is needed for Theodore Roosevelt National Park to acknowledge a connection between the wild horses and Sitting Bull’s people. But obtaining DNA from a band of horses that died a century ago is difficult. The Nokota Horse Conservancy attempted to extract DNA from horsehair taken from a museum object. The results were inconclusive because the artifact was treated with pesticides and preservatives, which damages genetic material. Also, the root on a piece of hair is needed in order to extract DNA. The Lakota cut the mane and tail hair they used for decoration, meaning that even if the conservancy found a hair strand untainted by chemicals, the odds aren’t good that it would have the root.

Regardless of the Nokota’s provenance, what’s at stake is the genetic integrity of the horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. In 2013, the park’s herd topped 200 horses, the largest it has been since the 1954 roundup. As chief of resource management, Whitworth is charged with balancing the populations of the many animals that inhabit the park. The target horse population, he says, is 100 head. At press time, the park service was planning to round up and cull nearly half the population in September, selling the surplus horses at public auction. In a subtle yet significant shift in park policy, their plan would cull horses in favor of historic phenotypes, such as roans and pintos, selling off stock tainted with domestic bloodlines. They say it is not a gesture of concession, but rather one meant to enhance the authenticity of the park’s wild herd to match the horses that ran loose in the badlands during Theodore Roosevelt’s time.

A simple way to accomplish that goal would be to introduce Nokota breeding stallions. Their bloodlines are a time capsule of the park’s wild horse herd, circa the 1986 roundup. But superintendent Naylor says that option is out of the question. The unspoken reason, it seems, is that doing so would mean the park service acknowledges the claims of the Nokota Horse Conservancy.

“When you look at the history of these horses, they’ve earned the right to be recognized,” Frank Kuntz says.

The Nokota Horse Conservancy returns to make this point, time and again. By doing so, however, they’ve created their own existential crisis. Until the park service recognizes that a Nokota breed exists, in a sense, it doesn’t.

This story was published in the November 2013 issue of Western Horseman. It was awarded 1st Place for Feature Articles at the 2014 American Horse Publications Awards.