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

Sitting Bull united Sioux tribes to resist settlers invading tribal lands in the late 19th century.

Native American legend Sitting Bull's great-grandson ID'd using DNA from 130-year-old hair
Cover Image Source: (L) 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); (R) YouTube | Her, Him & The Fellas

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

Scientists have identified Ernie LaPointe, a 73-year-old from South Dakota, as the great-grandson and closest living descendant of the famed Lakota leader Sitting Bull. This discovery was made possible by a novel technique that analyzed DNA fragments from a lock of Sitting Bull's hair, which had been preserved over the years. Sitting Bull, born in 1831, was a chief and medicine man of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux, known for uniting the Sioux tribes against settlers invading their lands in the late 19th century. These findings will aid LaPointe in his long-standing effort to move Sitting Bull's remains to a location more culturally significant. Sitting Bull, whose real name is Tatanka Iyotake (translating to Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down), was killed by Native American police in 1890 and buried in Mobridge, South Dakota, where his remains still rest, according to NBC News.

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 famously led the united Sioux tribes to victory against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a pivotal event in the Great Sioux War of 1876, reportedly inspired by his visions. After his death in 1890, an Army doctor at Fort Yates in North Dakota took a lock of his hair and his wool leggings. These items were housed at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, from 1896 until they were returned to LaPointe's family over a decade 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 ate 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.


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 is 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 no 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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