Sitting Bull's Legacy

The Lakota Sioux leader's relics return to his only living descendants

(Adam Nadel)

A lock of hair and wool leggings belonging to Sitting Bull will soon be repatriated by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to his closest living relatives. The Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux chief and medicine man led his people against the European invasion in the late 19th century. After Sitting Bull was fatally shot by Native American police in 1890, his body was in the custody of a temporary army doctor at the Fort Yates military base in North Dakota. The doctor obtained the hair and leggings and sent them to the museum in 1896.

For five years, Bill Billeck, director of the museum's Repatriation Office, thoroughly investigated the family of Sitting Bull to determine his closest living descendants. Billeck established that Ernie LaPointe, who is 59 and living in Lead, South Dakota, and his three sisters represent the only living relatives of the Native chief.

Now LaPointe, Sitting Bull's great-grandson, talks about the repatriation process and how the story of his famous great-grandfather has been so misunderstood.

How did this repatriation develop?

The Smithsonian was looking for descendants of Sitting Bull, and there was an individual at Smithsonian who told Bill Billeck that maybe he should contact me. He didn't know who I was, but he decided to contact me in 2002. I told him there are four of us who are the closest relatives to Sitting Bull. He flew over here in a couple of days and we showed him all of our documentation, like birth and death certificates. He took copies and went back to Washington and he basically did thorough research on all the documents and everything we told him. He established that we are the closest living relatives to Sitting Bull—the great-grandchildren. That's myself and three of my sisters. So then we put in an application to have a lock of his hair and a pair of his leggings that were taken off of his body after he was killed repatriated to us. People have 30 days to come forward and present any legal documentation that prove they are closer descendants than us. If nothing happens, then we have a target date for the first week in December to come up to Washington and pick up the hair and leggings.

How does it feel to have these artifacts back in the family's possession?

I think the circle of the death of Sitting Bull will be completed when we get the hair and leggings. To understand our Lakota culture, you have to know that we always feel we're not a whole person in the spirit world unless the pieces of you are together. Basically, the hair is a real vital part of a human Lakota. The part of the hair that they cut off is the part where Sitting Bull tied his eagle feathers on. I feel like he doesn't have that, so it needs to be returned back to the grave so he can become a whole person spiritually.

What was it like when you first saw the relics?

In November 2005, I went out there [Washington] with some family and a medicine man to do a ceremony with the items. It was a deep, emotional feeling. I was looking at the hair and leggings, thinking that those really belonged to him and that this was a part of him when he was murdered 116 years ago. Most people who own anything, they own it both materially and spiritually. When somebody dies, like Sitting Bull, and his items are taken without his permission or the permission of his relatives, his energy is still in them. We have to release that energy back to the spirit world through a ceremony.

What are you planning on doing with the relics once they're handed over?


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