Saving Sitting Bull’s Horses

History, Hometown Heroes, People, Traditions
on September 2, 2001

Frank and Leo Kuntz look out over the rolling pastures of their fourth-generation ranch east of Linton, N.D., (pop. 1,321). A dusty herd of curious horses watches cautiously, grazing at a safe distance.

For more than 20 years, the brothers have tried to save the Nokota horse—whose bloodlines can be traced to Sitting Bull’s war ponies—for re-introduction back into the wild.

“They aren’t like any modern horse,” Frank explains. “Indian ponies could always outlast the white man’s horses.”

“Bad weather doesn’t bother them, and they’ll eat whatever is out there,” he adds, motioning in the direction of the grassy range.

The Kuntzes never set out to be heroes. When they bought their first wild horses in 1978, they were merely looking for animals with the speed, endurance, and agility to compete in the Great American Horse Race circuit, a series of cross-country, long-distance races.

While mating the horses with their own stock, the brothers noticed the animals they bought from roundups at Theodore Roosevelt National Park were different from any modern breed. Short, sturdy, and big boned, with plain white faces and two-colored eyes, they matched descriptions of horses used by northern Plains Indians more than 125 years ago.

Historical records and photographs convinced the Kuntzes that they were direct descendants of Sitting Bull’s war ponies—confiscated by U.S. troops after the defiant Sioux chief surrendered in 1881—and stock used by early North Dakota ranchers.

In the late 1940s, the free-ranging horses were inadvertently enclosed within the fenced boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. When the National Park Service began regular roundups in the late 1970s, the Kuntzes bought up every horse they could, eventually acquiring some 130 animals.

“We realized if we didn’t save this horse, it would die out,” Frank says. “People thought we were crazy. But you can’t worry about what people think, and you can’t always look at things in terms of dollars and cents.”

“There were many times we thought of giving up,” Leo adds, “but luckily it was never at the same time.”

Over the years, the Kuntzes have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying and caring for the horses, and their Nokota herd has increased to 300 head.

“They are a unique reflection of the cultural history of western North Dakota,” says Castle McLaughlin, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Harvard University. “The Kuntz brothers didn’t have the means to save the horses, but they had the heart and the will, so they just did it.”

McLaughlin conducted a study of the horses between 1987 and 1990. Her 300-page report concluded that the Nokota horses are descendants of those that have roamed the badlands of North Dakota at least since the 1880s.

“The horses are part of the history of our land. Everyone should be interested in that,” says Mary Louise Defender-Wilson, a Nakota-Hidasta speaker and storyteller from Shields, N.D. “The Kuntz brothers are to be respected for all their efforts.”

In 1993, North Dakota lawmakers designated the Nokota horse as the “honorary state equine.” Then, in 1999, as word spread, the Nokota Horse Conservancy, a non-profit organization with members from across the country, was formed to support the Kuntzes’ efforts. The group is organizing a registry for the Nokota breed. Its long-term goal is to acquire land for a horse sanctuary.

Later this year, San Francisco-based Perihelion Films plans to release a documentary titled Nokota, chronicling the history and survival of the last wild horses in North Dakota.

“It’s encouraging to get help after all these years,” Frank says.