A saddle owned by Chief Iron Lighting/Wakiyan Maza and ridden by him in the Battle of Greasy Grass/The Little Big Horn in 1876 has returned to members of the Iron Lighting family after almost 100 years.
The saddle has been in the Nelson/Moyer family for five generations. Robert Moyer of Yacholt, Washington, was motivated to seek out the family of the original owner last year at the suggestion of his three grandchildren.
According to Moyer family history the saddle was given as collateral for a loan of one dollar. Shell Necklace, the widow of Iron Lighting, borrowed the money from Adolph Nelson, Moyer’s grandfather.
In October 2020 Moyer contacted the Chamber of Commerce in Faith, who got him in touch with Dana Dupris, of Eagle Butte, a descendant of Chief Iron Lighting/Wakiyan Maza. Dupris reached out to his cousin, M. Jay Cook.
The Dupris and Cook families thought about having the saddle professionally shipped, but the cost and time involved were prohibitive. So the Cook family organized a lighting 48-hour COVID-safe road trip to retrieve the family heirloom in late December.
When they arrived at Moyer’s home, they smudged the saddle and all present. They prayed and sang a prayer song for Wakiyan Maza. Finally, thanked the man and the family who returned their history.
Cook says you can see the age on the saddle. He sent pictures out to family members. “They want to feel it and to see it, a real old tree trunk that was put together and carved out. And the rawhide, the stirrups, they were all just dried up, and curly curling up. That’s what age looks like.”
Do you think they miss it?
When Moyer’s three grandchildren came to visit him in July 2020, he showed them the saddle and told the story of how it came to their family. Nathan (14) and Blake (10) listened while little sister Finley, who was only three, danced around the house like a butterfly.
As Moyer was getting ready to put the saddle away, Nathan suddenly said, “Do you think they miss it?” Moyer admitted he’d never thought about it. In hindsight he says, “I could see in his head there, that it was something of value to the family and it should be back with the family.”
A few weeks later Moyer called his grandsons to ask if they should send the saddle back. “Nathan said yes, we should send it back. So then they took a vote. I could hear them talking. Nathan asked them that, should they send the saddle back? Blake said, ‘Oh, yeah. Yes, it should go back!’”
Moyer particularly noticed that Finley, now four, was paying attention on the phone. “She didn’t really get that much into it when she was here. Like I said, she was only three years old. But I could hear them when Nathan asked. I could hear Finley bouncing around when Nathan asked Blake if it should go back there. And when Blake said yes, it should go back, I could hear Finley say ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’”
No one knew it was missing.
There were no family stories passed down from Shell Necklace about the saddle. No on in the family even knew it was missing. Yet, five members of the Cook family from three generations went to retrieve a piece of family history they had not known existed days before. M. Jay travelled with his son Bear Cook from North Dakota, granddaughter Precious Cook, and two other members of the family.
Support came in from across the family tree and across the country from as far away as Pennsylvania. Relatives donated gas money, paid for sanitized hotel rooms, supplied masks and gloves and hand sanitizer.
Cook says, “Help came from all four directions; from the North, from the East, from the South, from the West.” He said, “They are all close relatives, but when that happened, it just made my heart feel so good that I cried. There are tears in my eyes and tears in my heart. That joy, that feeling of being part of a family.”
It’s impossible to convey the excitement Cook experienced when he heard about the saddle or his relief once they were on their way back. “My heart was beating since October 30. And I forced myself to calm myself. I prayed and I just … patience. A virtue. I had to expound on it. Then my brother came and it just fell in place and I said, Let’s go.”
Being with the saddle gave Cook a feeling of connection with his great-grandfather. “I’ve been hearing about him since a child and I saw pictures of him, emulated him. Especially when he was in Washington, DC, and he had long hair…and the stories, especially a story about how he could walk many miles and come back with a horse. It’s like counting coup without hurting anybody.”
Cook choked up talking about the feeling on the return trip. “It was very good that the trip was made and when we came back we were at ease. There was no rush to get home. It was rush to get out there to get it, and then the feeling was, we have it. We are calm again. We were at peace with ourselves because we have Grandpa’s saddle. That was such a good feeling.”
Cook says he hopes the story of Iron Lighting/Wakiyan Maza and the return of the saddle will let people know that he and the other men who fought at Greasy Grass were warriors. Cook wants people to know that. “He rode into the battle to help protect our nation. It wasn’t just himself or his family, it was for the nation…But they were also men of the family, they were also men of the land. They were peaceful and they were also spiritual. One with the horse, one with the land, one with the holy animals, witakuya miazin. All our relatives, winged, four legged.”
Moyer says he feels relieved that the saddle is going back where it belongs but, “It’s like missing a friend when you’ve been around them for so long.” He said the saddle went from Faith to Rapid City, South Dakota; then was in Panorama City, California for a long time; then to Belmont, California for a couple of years; then to Portland, Oregon; and has been in the Yacholt area since 1992.
Treasured by the Moyer Family
Moyer inherited the saddle through his grandfather, Adolph Nelson. Moyer grew up in California and remembers one visit from his grandfather from South Dakota when he was about 9 or 10 years old.
When his grandfather died, Moyer’s uncle, Vernon Nelson, inherited the saddle. On a family visit to Rapid City when he was about 14, Moyer noticed the saddle hanging in his uncle’s garage. When they were getting ready to leave his uncle took the saddle down, dusted if off and gave it to Moyer.
Moyer says he loved history even as a kid and is still a collector as an adult. “I don’t know why it never occurred to me [to send it back] because, like I said, even as a kid I was collecting things and hanging on to them.”
The original connection between the Nelsons and Shell Necklace is unclear. Dupris remembers visiting a small store in Iron Lighting with his father as a very young boy. There was an old man named Adolph in the store, and Dupris thinks this may have been the grandfather of Bob Moyer.
Says Dupris, “There was a man named Adolph and he lived down the road from where we lived. This was probably in the Fifties or right around the early Sixties. I don’t know if this is the same man. My father knew him. And every time when we’d go down that road we’d stop and visit with this gentleman. His name was Adolph. At that time he was very elderly. So I am thinking that this is the same individual.”
Moyer says his grandfather could have had a shop. “He was into all kinds of things. I know he worked for the railroad, like my mom said. He helped build schools for the Indian reservations. He had his hand in a little bit getting the electricity in to Faith, and to get refrigerator units in there. He rented out cash registers for purchase.”
Tracing the Ancestors
When M. Jay Cook and Bob Moyer, who are both 67 years old, met each other for the first time in December 2020 it was the first meeting of members of the two families in five generations.
Bob’s grandfather, Adolph Nelson, immigrated from Sweden to New York, where he married. According to Moyer, Nelson and his wife saved their money and went west to South Dakota, where they settled and began sheep ranching near Faith. Their entire herd died in the first year and they had to start over with a loan from the bank in the second year. Eventually the ranch grew to 3,000 acres.
The West River Eagle found records from his estate which locate the property in Ziebach County northeast of Faith. The location is north of Rt. 212, south of Flint Rock Creek, and east of Arrowhead Road. After Nelson’s death the Phillip’s Petroleum Company of Billings, MT, prospected an oil and gas well on the land in May, 1957.
Adolph Nelson married Pearl Nelson. They had four children, Vernon, Kentley, Florence and Norma Maye. Norma was born on March 7, 1926 and is the mother of Bob Moyer, 67. Bob has one son, Christopher, who is married to Allison. They have three children, Nathan (14), Blake (10), and Finley (4).
Dupris (63) and Cook (67) are descendants of Iron Lighting through his second wife, Pretty Elk, half-sister of Red Crane, also known as Shell Necklace. Iron Lighting had three wives, White Buffalo, Red Crane/Shell Necklace (b. 1863) and Pretty Elk.
According to Dupris, “after Iron Lighting passed away, Red Crane married a man named Shell Necklace.” She was the mother of Grant Iron Lighting, one of the founders of the town of Iron Lighting and ancestor to the Dupris and Cook families.
Chief Iron Lighting/Wakinyan Maza had 26 children with his three wives, although only 9 survived. He died near Thunder Butte in 1921. According to his obituary in The Hickory Daily Record from June 3, 1921, “He was the last Indian, so far as is known, to have continued to live with two wives after the order prohibiting polygamy and further polygamous marriages among the Indians was made.”
Pretty Elk had 12 children, seven of whom lived. In 1941 four were living, Grant Iron Lightning, Rose Iron Lighting Red Bull, Ellen Iron Lighting Red Bird, Gertie Iron Lighting Iron Bird.
Grant Iron Lighting and Molly High Elk had ten children, Cordelia Dupris, Florence Lafferty, John Iron Lighting, Amy Curley, Grant Iron Lighting, Jr., Caroline Cook, Teter Iron Lighting, Dale Iron Lighting, Delores Hartfield, Veronica Thompson.
Cordelia Dupris is the mother of Dana Dupris. Caroline Cook is the mother of M. Jay Cook. M. Jay is the father of Jason Cook. Jason is the father of Precious Cook (14).
Repaying the Debt
Bob Moyer returned the saddle happily. In return he asked for two things. First, he would like a note attached to the saddle when it is finally displayed in a museum to mention that it was returned by the Moyer family.
Then, in a nod to the ancestors on both sides, he asked M. Jay to make him a gift. Bob would like a plaque engraved with the names of Iron Lighting and Shell Necklace and a silver dollar attached. Below that it should say, “A dollar borrowed, a dollar returned, a promise honored.”
M. Jay is a woodcarver who only works with hand tools, nothing motorized. He is looking for a silver dollar from the year of the battle, 1845, to use in the plaque for Moyer. He has not carved for many years and this project will get him working again.
M. Jay Cook told Bob Moyer, “Your grandkids are my grandchildren. Because of their heart and their feeling, we have our history back. If it’s wasn’t for those children with their sacredness, their pure heart, they gave us back so I take them as my grandchildren. They became my grandchildren. They are my family.” Cook plans to find special blankets in the Moyer children’s favorite colors to send to them.
Editor’s Note: Unless otherwise noted, factual Iron Lighting family history is taken from “South Dakota’s Ziebach County, History of the Prairie”, published in 1982 by the Ziebach County Historical Society, Dupree, SD. Text only of the book can be found here: files.usgwarchives.net/sd/ziebach/history/. Oral history is from individual interviews.