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.

Published in November 2013

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.