Sitting Bull’s living descendant identified through 2-inch lock of hair from legendary chief

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — Researchers have found a living descendant of Sitting Bull thanks to a two-inch lock of hair from the legendary Lakota Sioux chief. Ernie Crowfoot LaPointe, 73, is the great-grandson of the warrior who wiped out General George Armstrong Custer’s army at the Little Bighorn.

Scientists used a technique called autosomal DNA testing that looks at a person’s entire genome. Since humans inherit half of their genes from their father and half from their mother, scientists can find matches from both the paternal and maternal side of the family.

“Autosomal DNA is our non-gender-specific DNA. We managed to locate sufficient amounts of autosomal DNA in Sitting Bull’s hair sample, and compare it to the DNA sample from Ernie Lapointe and other Lakota Sioux – and were delighted to find that it matched,” says senior author Professor Eske Willerslev in a media release.

Sitting Bull's great-grandson
Ernie Lapointe, Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, and his closest living descendant. (Credit: Ernie Lapointe)

LaPointe, a sun dancer and Native American author, agreed to provide a saliva sample.

“Over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull,” LaPointe says.

It is the first time researchers have used DNA to prove a familial relationship between living and historical individuals. The new method is ideal when very limited genetic data is available, as was the case with Sitting Bull.

Connecting more people to their famous ancestors

Autosomal DNA testing paves the way for similar testing of the relationship between many other famous long-dead figures and their potential descendants. Forensic experts may even be able to solve murders using old human DNA, which scientists previously considered too damaged to utilize.

“In principle, you could investigate whoever you want – from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs. If there is access to old DNA – typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way,” Prof Willerslev explains.

Sitting Bull
Photograph of Legendary Native American leader Sitting Bull c.1885 (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

The study in Science Advances identified autosomal DNA in the genetic fragments of Sitting Bull’s hair. Researchers compared it to saliva samples from Lapointe and 12 other living members of the Lakota Sioux tribe. Results showed Lapointe is Sitting Bull’s closest living descendant. The 73-year-old has three sisters.

Honoring Sitting Bull

Lapointe believes his great grandfather’s bones lie in Mobridge, South Dakota, at a place with no connection to him or his culture. He also has concerns about the care of the grave. There are two official burial sites for Sitting Bull — at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and Mobridge — and both receive visitors.

With DNA evidence backing his bloodline claim, Lapointe now hopes to rebury the great Native American’s remains in a more appropriate location. The study authors note that Sitting Bull’s lock of hair has significantly degraded over the years, after sitting for over a century at room temperature in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum.

Officials returned it to Lapointe and his sisters in 2007. The international team spent 14 years finding a way of extracting useable DNA from the hair.

Traditional approaches look for a genetic match between the Y chromosome passed down the male line, or, if the person was female, the mitochondria passed from a mother to her offspring. Lapointe claimed to be related to Sitting Bull on his mother’s side, making both methods unusable.

The lasting legend of the Little Bighorn

Sitting Bull (1831-1890), led 1,500 Lakota warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The massacre, also called “the Battle of the Greasy Grass,” is arguably the most famous battle of the old west. When the smoke cleared on the evening of June 26th, 262 soldiers from five companies were dead — including the celebrated General Custer.

The battle symbolizes the resistance of Native Americans to the expansion of the United States across the west. Sitting Bull was assassinated in 1890 by the so-called “Indian Police” acting on behalf of the U.S. government.

“Sitting Bull has always been my hero, ever since I was a boy. I admire his courage and his drive. That’s why I almost choked on my coffee when I read in a magazine in 2007 that the Smithsonian Museum had decided to return Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters, in accordance with new US legislation on the repatriation of museum objects,” Prof. Willerslev says.

“I wrote to Lapointe and explained that I specialized in the analysis of ancient DNA, and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honor if I could be allowed to compare the DNA of Ernie and his sisters with the DNA of the Native American leader’s hair when it was returned to them.”

Previously, a relationship claim was based on birth and death certificates, a family tree, and a review of historical records. Before anyone can move Sitting Bull to a new burial site, scientists will have to analyze the remains in a similar way to ensure a genetic match.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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