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Native American legend Sitting Bull's great-grandson identified using DNA from 130-year-old hair

Sitting Bull led the fight against settlers invading tribal lands by uniting Sioux tribes across the Great Plains in the late 19th century.

Native American legend Sitting Bull's great-grandson identified using DNA from 130-year-old hair
Left: Portrait shows the chief of the Sioux tribe Sitting Bull (1831 - 1890), known as Tatanka Iyotake in 1881. (Image by O.S. Goff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Right: YouTube screenshot/Her, Him & The Fellas

Editor's note: This article was originally published on October 29, 2021. It has since been updated.

Famed Lakota leader Sitting Bull's great-grandson has been identified using DNA fragments found on a lock of his hair that had been preserved through the years. Scientists established 73-year-old Ernie LaPointe of South Dakota as Sitting Bull's great-grandson and closest living descendant using a novel technique that analyzes fragments of Sitting Bull's DNA. Sitting Bull, who was born in 1831, was chief and medicine man of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. He led the fight against settlers invading tribal lands by uniting Sioux tribes across the Great Plains in the late 19th century. The findings by the scientists will now help LaPointe in his long-standing fight to move the Lakota leader's remains to one of more cultural relevance to his great-grandfather. Sitting Bull, who was killed by Native American police in 1890, was buried in Mobridge, South Dakota, where his remains rest till date, reported NBC News. Sitting Bull's real name is Tatanka Iyotake, which translates to Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.

Four Native Americans with their interpreter. Back - Julius Meyer (interpreter) and Red Cloud. Front - Sitting Bull (1834 - 1890), Swift Bear and Spotted Tail. Original Artwork: Original print in sepia. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Sitting Bull successfully led the United Sioux tribes against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army in what is known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn. It was one of the most significant victories of the Great Sioux War of 1876. The battle had reportedly been inspired by Sitting Bull's visions. After Sitting Bull was killed in 1890, an Army doctor at the Fort Yates military base in North Dakota took a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and his wool leggings. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC got both items in 1896 where they stayed for more than a century before they were repatriated to LaPointe's family more than 10 years ago.

For LaPointe, who grew up watching movies and viewing his own people as villains, it has been a long journey culminating in connecting with his past. “I would always look at the movies and I wanted to be John Wayne or Randolph Scott because they were big heroes. And the bad guys were always the native guys," LaPointe told The Independent. “That’s just a fantasy these people came up with. If you look at these old Westerns from the 50s even to now, they always make themselves look good and made us look like villains. But actually, it’s the other way around. They’re the villains, the rapists, torturers, scalpers, and murderers. Not us.”

circa 1890: American showman William Frederick Cody, known as Buffalo Bill (1846 - 1917) with Sioux leader Sitting Bull. Cody employed Sitting Bull as one of the main attractions in his traveling show which depicted life in the American West. (Photo by D. F. Barry/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

LaPointe had also wanted to retrieve Sitting Bull's bones so he could give a proper burial for his great-grandfather. Eske Willerslev, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Cambridge, had been enamored by Sitting Bull and wanted to help LaPointe. "I've always been extremely fascinated by Sitting Bull because in many ways he was the perfect leader — brave and clever, but also kind," said Willerslev.



 

Willerslev is a DNA researcher and he wanted to study the famed leader's DNA and help LaPointe as well. "If you want to do this, I think I can help you," Willerslev recalls telling LaPointe. Willerslev is also the director of the Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. LaPointe accepted help from Willerslev but not before assessing the scientists' intentions. He asked Willerslev to take part in a ceremony involving a medicine man, drummers, and chanting in a darkened room, reported Yahoo News. "A blue-green light appeared in the middle of the room — and I am a natural scientist so I thought, well, that's the medicine man running around with a lamp, but when I reached out in the darkness, there was nobody there," recalled Willerslev. They then smoked a Lakota pipe and eat buffalo meat, before LaPointe told him that the eerie light had been Sitting Bull's spirit, giving his blessing to the study.

When Willerslev gained access to Sitting Bull's lock of hair, he realized that the hair had deteriorated significantly as it was stored at room temperature at the National Museum of Natural History for more than a century. "There was very little DNA in the hair — way too little for established methods of DNA analysis," he said.



 

The traditional DNA analysis involved focusing on sex-specific genetic matches, such as zeroing in on the Y chromosome, which is passed down to male descendants, or specific DNA in the mitochondria that are passed from mothers to their offspring. LaPointe stated that he was related to Sitting Bull on his mother's side which meant those methods couldn't be used to determine a familial connection. 



 

Willerslev's team had to come up with a novel technique to establish the relationship between Sitting Bull and LaPointe. It took more than 14 years to develop but they found a way to search for "autosomal DNA," which is non-sex-specific DNA that people inherit from both their mother and father. They then used compared the autosomal DNA from Sitting Bull's hair lock to DNA samples from LaPointe and other Lakota Sioux to establish the familial connection. Willerslev is excited about the potential use of autosomal DNA. "You could investigate whoever you want — from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs,” said Willerslev. “If there is access to old DNA — typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth — they can be examined in the same way.”



 

Kim TallBear, an associate professor in the faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said they were wary about involving scientists to establish LaPointe's familial connection with Sitting Bull, considering the risk of further exploiting Indigenous communities. TallBear added that there was any doubt for the Lakota or other tribal communities that LaPointe's familial link with Sitting Bull but needed the proof to obtain the latter's remains. "Any time we participate with a scientist in reaffirming genetic definitions of what it means to be Indigenous, we are de facto helping to uphold their definitions over our own," said TallBear. "But we're stuck between a rock and a hard place because settler institutions control the disposition of Sitting Bull's remains," she added. 

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