CRAZY HORSE, S.D. - A saddle said to have been used during the Battle of the Little Big Horn was donated to Crazy Horse Memorial.
The saddle had been handed down from one family to another and within the family that made the donation. George Dunkle, an early western South Dakota rancher, is said to have acquired the saddle shortly after the battle. It then exchanged hands and was displayed in a saloon in Draper, S.D., after the railroad came to the western part of the state.
Finally it was given to A.H. Tobiassen, a newspaper owner in Draper, who later moved to Illinois. Dunkle gave the saddle to him as a thank you for forgiving a loan during the 1930s depression, Tobaissen's grandson Stewart "Stu" Marty said.
It was Marty, who lives in Normal, Ill., who donated the saddle to the Indian Museum of North America at Crazy Horse Memorial.
"I realize the saddle is very old and its condition is poor. Our family has always taken great pride in it as we knew it held stories, but the years alone have had an effect on its condition," Marty said. "We do not have the knowledge of how to protect the saddle or visitors to release the stories it holds. It told stories for my family, but not for others."
Marty said he could not absolutely authenticate the saddle as having been used at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Dunkle told his grandfather it was authentic and a piece of paper that accompanied the artifact indicated it came from the battle.
"I never did authenticate it. I assumed my grandfather did. He was a newspaper man and was familiar with doing as much documentation as possible.
"There is no way I can document the saddle was at the battle, even if my grandfather was still alive. That was the story given to him. I told the museum there was no way of proving this."
The saddle sat in his grandfather's basement and, after his grandfather died in 1968, it found a home in Marty's basement.
"I didn't want it to sit in someone else's basement. I wanted nothing for the saddle, which needed better care. The leather was tightening up and it pulled the horn back. It stretched the holes to nearly a quarter inch where the sinew went through," he said.
The decision to give the saddle to a museum or other organization wasn't easy. Marty said he talked to a person at the Smithsonian Institution who turned him on to Crazy Horse Memorial. He said he had mixed feelings about the memorial because Crazy Horse never wanted his image reproduced.
The memorial, north of Custer is being carved out of a mountain as a tribute to all American Indian tribes in North America.
"(The person at the Smithsonian) said they were doing a lot of education there.
"I lived in the Black Hills from time to time but never went there. I recently went there and I was tremendously impressed. I thought these people were trying to do something with education," Marty said.
Besides, his wife is Polish and "we assumed (the Ziolkowski) family was Polish. She said to give to these people."
Korczack Ziolkowski started the project more than 50 years ago. His family, under the guidance of his widow Ruth, is carrying on the tradition of carving the mountain.
Dr. James Gillihan formerly at the University of South Dakota and a professional appraiser of objects and art from the 19th century appraised the saddle at $15,000.
"That just floored me," Marty said. He added that Gillihan did not indicate on the appraisal paper whether or not it actually could be pin-pointed to have been at the battle.
The Battle of the Little Big Horn occurred June 25, 1876, and became famous because it was the final fight for Lt. Col. George A. Custer. His troop was wiped out by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors led by the strategists Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Artifacts taken from the battlefield and acquired after the battle have been collected by Custer buffs and people interested in the 19th century American Indian wars. Museums and private collectors continue to uncover artifacts from the battle that help to tell the story of what happened on that fateful day on the rolling hills of southeastern Montana.
Marty said the saddle was given public prominence in the 1950s when the movie "How the West Was Won" was shown in Bloomington, Ill. The saddle was displayed as part of the movie promotion and the local press interviewed Tobiassen.
Marty said he has some close-up photos of the saddle that shows the stitching. If anyone is interested in more information they can contact Indian Country Today.
The Indian Museum of North American houses tens of thousands of artifacts, which are either on permanent or rotating exhibit in the various galleries at Crazy Horse Mountain.