Genealogy or genomics?

The genealogy of the Nokota horses in particular and wild bred horses in general, is as interesting as it is difficult. There is no reasonable doubt that the Nokota horses can be claimed to have a significant genetic influence from the horses that were confiscated from the Lakota and Tatanka Iyotake at his surrender in 1881 at Fort Buford, North Dakota. Occasionally questions and doubts arise from different sources, which call for an open and constructive debate.

All breeds of horses have a history of historical facts and tales, more or less supported by evidence. The connection between the Nokota horse and Tatanka Iyotake (Buffalo-Bull-Who-Sits-Down, also known as “Sitting Bull”) is a spectacular story. The story itself does not make the Nokota horses superior or inferior in any particular way, but it sometimes puts the Nokota horses in the spotlight as a symbol, for an endless line of reasons I may return to in many blog posts in the future. Powerful symbols have a tendency to be caught in crossfire between righteous causes and less gracious sides of human character.

Tatanka Iyotake himself was a controversial person during most of his life and his legacy still is. Most written stories and movies about him are based on the work of Walter Campbell (alias Stanley Vestal) and his interviews of the betrayers that were responsible for the murder of Tatanka Iyotake. The true story “Sitting Bull – his life and legacy” is written by Ernie LaPointe, great grandson of Tatanka Iyotake.

Hence, it is important to explain and verify the history of the Nokota horse as clearly as possible. This is our interpretation based on simple human logic and deep appreciation and affection for horses. There may be better explanations than ours, more facts and evidences, so take it for what it is.

First it may be appropriate to define the value of evidence. There are at least three ways to approach the question whether a fact can be claimed to be true; mathematical verification, juridical proof and scientific theory. A mathematical verification is untouchable, like 1+1=2 meaning there is no room at all for interpretation. A juridical proof is to prove something “beyond reasonable doubt” which is achieved thru evaluation of technical evidence, circumstantial evidence and statements by eyewitnesses. A scientific theory is to express the best available knowledge thru logical reasoning, statistical or experimental evaluation.

One attempt to state mathematical evidence against the Nokota horses proposed connection to Tatanka Iyotakes’ horses goes something like this; there must have been a million horses passing thru the Little Missouri Badlands area, only 250 of them were Sitting Bulls horses. (the horses acquired by De Mores at the time of Tatanka Iyotake’s surrender at Fort Buford 1881) 250 out of 1 000 000 is 0,025% or virtually no genetic connection at all. This seems like a perfect proof, but that does not prevent it from being completely false! Let me explain;

First: “one million horses in the area” how is “area” defined? Did anyone actually count 1 000 000 horses, where and during what timeframe? The Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP) is professionally managed by the National Park Service who by their best standards and knowledge states that the area can only sustainably support 70-90 horses in the park’s 70 500 acres. Secondly: the proposed mathematical calculation states that the genetic variation among one million horses is perfectly mixed together, like pouring a cup of tea in a pond. You may believe in the almighty creator, Charles Darwin, or both; either way it is a deep misunderstanding of how biological processes work. Five hundred years after the first horses set foot on the American continent there are still horses of Spanish Colonial type living on open range in several different locations that show insignificant deviation in conformation from the original Spanish horses. With other words; wild horses don’t mix and blend like water.

A strong juridical proof in favor of the Nokota horses could, hypothetically of course, be if a genetic match would exist between now living Nokota horses and a verified DNA sample from one of Tatanka Iyotake’s horses. This is of course not possible since no such known sample exists.

It is however possible to point out a significant genetic difference between the Nokota horses and other horses in the area, which strengthens the hypothesis that Nokota horses (by that I first and foremost mean the fully foundation traditional type of Nokota) are primarily of Spanish colonial heritage and only insignificantly a mix of later domesticated influence. It is important to understand the circumstances under which the Nokota horse developed thru time.

The horses brought to the American mainland by the Spaniards from 1519 and forward, was primarily Andalusian. The Andalusian type of horse was basically a mix of Arabian, Berber and Northern European horses. As the horses spread across the American continent over the centuries and adapted to the environment they roamed, the composition of their genes changed thru natural selection. Not later than 1730 wild horses lived in what today is known as TRNP, proved by oral Lakota tradition and written documents by explorers like Louis and Clarke. These horses lived in an environment and climate that differed considerably from what their Spanish ancestors came from. This is an important circumstance, because what happens is that the process of natural selection leads to an enhancement of the properties, or genes, that are better adapted to the new environment. Meaning; cold harsh winters favored the genes inherited from their Northern European ancestors. So traditional Nokota horses should have more genes associated with Scandinavian and Northern European breeds, than their Spanish Colonial type of relatives in the southwest. This is exactly what was found at a DNA analysis recently reported for a Nokota horse called Nisa! (The genome of the sample horse is compared to standard genomes that represent different breeds or types. The percentage of matched positions is then put in order of magnitude 1st, 2nd and 3rd) These were the results:

1st percentage: Nordic Fjord Icelandic

2nd percentage: Irish breeds

3rd percentage Non Arabian Oriental (read Berber)

This is of course just one single example, but there will hopefully be more and more results coming in from private horse owners in due time.

Furthermore other properties that might be expected to be enhanced are the roan coat colors, which are better at absorbing heat at winter and reflecting heat at summer. Tough environments and harsh climates always favor smaller individuals, though taller horses have an advantage in deep snow.

All this leads to a very special horse conformation, which by the way perfectly coincides with a fully foundation Nokota horse. The reason I want you to consider this description of natural selection is to present a circumstantial evidence. What does this prove? Nokota horses does show significant differences that connects them to the Spanish Colonial type of Indian pony used by the Lakota and disconnects them from those one million domesticated horses said to have roamed the area.

So I have now pointed at technical evidence in the form of DNA analysis as well as circumstantial evidence that supports that Traditional Nokota horses are not, more than insignificantly, crossbred with domesticated type of horses. But there is more.

After the Battle of The Greasy Grass (also known as the Little Big Horn) Tatanka Iyotake and 3000 of his Lakota people settled in The Land of the Grandmother (also known as Canada). This was a five year struggle against the elements and starvation of enormous proportions. In 1881 only 186 surviving Lakota and their horses returned to surrender at Fort Buford. The remaining horses were the reduced band of the toughest horses out of tens of thousands of the best Indian ponies ever selected by the foremost horse culture that has ever existed.

These 250 horses were obtained by Marquis De Mores. After the terrible winter in 1886 Huidekoper bought 60 of these horses from De Mores when he left America for good. A couple of decades later when Huidekoper got out of business, the descendants of these original 60 (or 250) horses continued to roam the Little Missouri Badlands. A cautious conclusion would be that these horses, descendants of Tatanka Iyotake’s horses, were among the best fitted horses of the area and that they continued to genetically dominate among other Spanish Colonial type of horses that roamed the Little Missouri Badlands and eventually formed into the breed called The Nokota Horse.

Other horses of domesticated types that strayed into the area were not equally adapted to the tough life on open range and could not always communicate successfully among the well structured wild horse population, though several different wild horse bands probably existed in different parts of the rugged area and some bands were more influenced than others, which in part would explain the difference between the Ranch type and the Traditional type within the Nokota horse population.

It must also be understood that a few external mares can only have a small impact on the genome of an existing horse population. A single stallion could, if successful however have a larger impact, but an intruding tender footed domesticated stallion have virtually no chance of conquering a single mare from existing wild horse stallions.

It is my opinion that this brief explanation meets both the standards of juridical proof beyond reasonable doubt as well as scientific theory, to state that Nokota Horses in fact are significantly genetically influenced by, and therefore descendants of, the horses confiscated from Tatanka Iyotake at Fort Buford in 1881.

Another issue is whether Tatanka Iyotake and his Lakota people were exceptionally good horse breeders, which would make the Nokota horses in any way superior to other horses?

The question really makes no sense at all. Correct me if I am wrong, but our European/American conception of “breeding” and “superior” do not exist in Lakota culture or their view of the world and its creatures. Horses are family and nobody is superior or inferior, only different. Breeding is a word for improving. In Europe we have been breeding horses for thousands of years; where did that leave us? The sharpest horses are found among the wild horse populations in North America, like the Nokota horses. I believe that the Lakota people knows that only nature itself can improve (breed) horses. They were nomadic hunters not ranchers, they simply picked out the horses they liked from the existing wild horse bands they came across, or bravely conquered from their enemies.

The difference between how The Nokota Horse Conservancy and other wild horse populations are managed, is that the NHC works to preserve the natural genetic variation already existing within the breed, while others try to improve their population towards better saddle stock thru selective breeding and infusion of external blood lines as in traditional, by the book, breeding.

It is my hope that the NHC will continue their successful struggle for wild horse preservation and beware against lesser goals. To use Tatanka Iyotake’s own words; “Great men are usually destroyed by those who are jealous of them”.


13 thoughts on “Genealogy or genomics?

  1. Your study on the Nokota is always a joy to read. I want to thank you personally though for another reason too. My brother tribe / band (Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux) was honored by your remembrance by using the name Tatanka Iyotake, (Thathaŋka Iyotake translated to Sitting bull or more accurately defined, ”Buffalo bull who sits down”. Some insist Iyotake means to ”sits on his haunches because he is tired and needs rest”) Since many names could be given to a man throughout his life, maybe this name was a sign that ‘Buffulo Bull’ was getting on in age and Iyotake added to Tatanka reflects this. Thank you for your mentioning this. It is very difficult to accurately spell into English many Native tribes pronunciations as many of our words are pronounced by using our nasal cavities (Sinuses) so I just used the common writing.
    Few also know the area where the battle of Little big horn was fought was known as ‘greasy grass’ by the Lakota Sioux. Thank you for pointing this out to your readers. Keep up the good work my friend. JW


    • It is my pleasure Chief Joseph!
      I agree it is important to honor him by his rightful name. Ernie LaPointe has written about how his great grandfather earned that name… it was something about a big white buffalo backing up on his haunches!
      I have tried to dig into the Lakota language a few times, but it is difficult for a european tongue and mind, but the language says a lot about how you see the world, it is interesting that many concepts are very different.


      • I have heard of the white buffalo story but have yet to see more than just stories. A lot goes into a name. A name can change over time and many times it does. My grandmother called me ‘Big Oak’ and said when I grow up, those around me will be glad they have a friend in Big Oak. Sounds simple enough but when you break it down the real meaning is much more evident than just the two words imply. Big is also thought of as, powerful, strong, mighty, enduring, solid, unmoving and firm. The Oak is a tree that bends, does not break, gives shade for the weary, provides shelter in times of storms, provides nourishment (acorns), has deep and wide roots, is never upended, lives many years and refuses to let its leaves be torn off in winter winds. So, add the two together and you find a person who is reliable, strong in protecting others, gives safe shelter, is not uprooted to winds of change or breaks in times of stress. A Big Oak is a person who has powerful feelings and is mighty in friendship. Once you break the word down you can usually figure out what was meant. I have always wondered though what was meant by the name of a scout General Custer had working for him… Hairy Shoes! LOL


  2. Well done, thank you! it feels very good to hear the research and logic of others’ matches my own, as sometimes i worry i may be a lunatic out on a limb… which i still may be the case but at least i am not always incorrect 😉 So i do not want to detract in any way from what you wrote, but i feel that i should clarify a small and admittedly ellusive detail: the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park does not contain any horses, so that only leaves the far detached South Unit of 46,158.57 acres to sustain the herd of horses there. Definitely a hard to know fact if you haven’t been there, and even i had to dig a while to find the acreage of the south unit alone.

    OK, two details, sorry. At least in the America’s there are a lot of examples where colder climates actually select for denser bodies… possibly with shorter legs and ears and such as the idea is to have the maximum volume to surface ratio possible to reduce heat loss, but for example white-tailed deer are characteristically much, much heavier in Minnesota than Venezuela. So this pattern sure lends itself well to explaining why Nokota horses are typically more heavily built than their southern counterparts… i guess i should look up the long term record but Emma and i have felt 41 below at the ranch, complete with heinous wind blowing the snow so hard that you couldn’t see the barn at times even though it is only 30 meters from the house!


    • You know, sometimes it is necessary to go out on a limb and you have a steady grip and good balance. I agree, denser must be better in cold and I guess it is easier too last thru a long winter if there is some fat on the bones, but in a hot climate where food is scarse in summer I guess it is better to be small, so it is probably a balance act… Yes -41 is terribly cold! I was driving past Särna in Dalarna once when it was close to those temperatures, the defroster had no chance to keep the ice away from the inside of the windshield. Imagine horses living and thriving under such conditions, for generations


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