“I am a descendant of Sitting Bull’s war ponies. My ancestors carried his warriors in the fight against Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. On these Northern Plains, my homeland, I have endured now for more than one hundred and fifty snows. Through my veins flows the lifeblood of history, and the stories of great warriors.” – Courtesy of NHC
The resilient Blue Roan ponies, that Sitting Bull’s warriors rode across America’s heartland, are still cherished by strong, free-spirited cowgirls today.
By Deborah Donahue
Photography by Becky Iglehart
The modern day Nokota horse is a descendant of the war ponies of the great Sioux chief and revered holy man, Sitting Bull. The ponies were instrumental in his victory over General Custer’s armies at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Yet the breed’s lineage can be traced further into history, to the colonial horses brought to the Americas by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s.
As is now well known, not all of the Spaniards’ horses remained in captivity. By the early to mid 1700s, some of the wild descendants of the colonial horses had migrated across the Great Northern Plains, arriving in the land of the present day Dakotas. Meanwhile, a branch of the Sioux that had lived in the woodlands of Eastern Minnesota—the Lakota tribe—were driven away by the Chippewa and found themselves also new inhabitants of that same vast northern landscape. Imagine the Lakota’s delight and amazement when encountering these magnificent animals, completely unbeknownst to them! This meeting of the Lakota and the feral horses would impact each of their destinies, as well as the trajectory of the New World’s development.
The nomadic Lakota had, up until this time, been dependent upon dogs to pull their travois (a type of sled consisting of two joined poles.) Domesticating the newly discovered “wild species,” who the Lakota called “Sunka Wakans,” or “Sacred Dogs,” would not only alter the Lakota’s means of transport, of both people and goods, but would, in time, serve to make them expert horsemen–and breeders of horses that would prove superior both on the hunt and on the battlefield. The Lakota became the first light cavalry in the world, whose influence and power extended across the Northern Plain.
Sitting Bull’s orchestration of the heroic 1876 defeat of the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Government (in the battle also known as Custer’s Last Stand) would turn out to be a short-lived victory. It served only as a delay to the fate of the Lakota, as well as the fate of the other tribes (including Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho) who had joined them in the effort to retain their homelands. All were eventually forced to retreat onto the designated reservations.
By the early 1880s, when Theodore Roosevelt began ranching on the Little Missouri Badlands of North Dakota, the ancestors of what would become known as the Nokota® breed had, for the most part, been confiscated from the Lakota—to ensure the tribe’s compliance and to restrict their mobility. But the horses’ preservation itself was considered of little value. Area ranchers thought them less than desirable for saddle stock; too small, too scruffy and offensively colorful.
The horses found an unexpected ally in the form of a worldly Frenchman, the Marquis de Mores, whose discerning eye looked beyond mere appearance. Impressed by the Lakota’s endurance, intelligence, and compactness, he purchased 250 of the animals from traders at the Fort Buford Army Post. De Mores sold sixty Lakota mares to A.C. Huidekoper, whose HT Ranch was an enormous operation well into the early 1920s. The remaining horses of De Mores’s herd of original Nokota were used as saddle and ranch horses, and the rest were “range-bred.” Some of the range horses were never recovered, surviving wild in the Badlands. It would take the Great Depression and the subsequent control of public lands by Federal agencies to once again threaten the survival of these brave and scrappy equines. The horses were considered competition with regard to food availability for domestic livestock.
State and Federal agencies decided to simply eradicate the wild horses in North Dakota in the 1940s and 1950s. As fate would have it, a few bands were serendipitously fenced in the area designated as the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in the late 1940s. These few living remnants of North Dakota’s wild herds would enjoy a reprieve until the 1980s, when, once again, their appearance would become a factor in their worthiness to exist. The Nokota’s beauty, though perhaps unconventional, is often striking. Many are a rare blue roan color. Nevertheless, Park administrators, in an effort to increase the horses’ sale value, sought to improve their appeal by introducing new bloodlines. Dominant stallions were killed or removed, then replaced. Two brothers, Leo and Frank Kuntz out of Linton, North Dakota–both veterans of the Vietnam War who had experienced their own survival challenges—stepped up on behalf of the original Park horses. They bought as many as they could and with the help of Dr. Castle McLaughlin, approached the National Park Service to petition support for the historic breed.
After years of tireless work and undaunted persistence, the Nokota, (named and registered by the brothers) became the honorary State Equine of North Dakota. In 1996, the men’s efforts to return the horses to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park became headline news. The Nokota Breed Registry and the non-profit Nokota Horse Conservancy® were established. With most Nokota now owned privately, or by the NHC, preserving the breeding stock and promoting the breed is paramount. The Nokota Land Trust Initiative and Land Trust Fund have been created with the intention of purchasing land to be used as a permanent home for the Nokota Horse. So far, the legend continues.
COWGIRL would like to acknowledge the Kuntz brothers and their extraordinary efforts and considerable success in saving the Nokota, as well as Dr. Phillip Sponenberg of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine for his ongoing research and work towards the preservation of rare and endangered breeds. For more information on this remarkable breed and to contribute to their continuing survival, please visit www.nokotahorse.org
NOKOTA HORSE CONSERVANCY®
208 NW 1st St., Linton, ND 58552
firstname.lastname@example.org ~ www.nokotahorse.org
Nokota® is a registered trademark of the Nokota Horse Conservancy.