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?
We're going to do a ceremony with my sisters, myself and a spiritual leader. We will ask our great-grandfather to take his energy, or "spiritual DNA," off of these things and take it back to the spirit world. The hair we will probably rebury. With the leggings, I'm not sure yet. Through the ceremony, the medicine man will tell us what we should do with them.
How did you learn that Sitting Bull was your great-grandfather?
It all started when we lived on the reservation, out in the country. We had no electricity, TV or anything like that. In the evenings, my mom would fire up the kerosene lamp and she would be sewing and she would tell us all kinds of stories. In the process of doing this, she would tell us about her grandfather. I never knew for a long time who she was talking about. When you're a kid, you just want to play, but she just kept talking. So we kept listening. She said, "There are going to be a lot of stories about your grandfather." As I got older, I started to realize who she was talking about, because she said to keep the stories in our heads and in our hearts.
She also said don't tell anyone that you are related to Tatanka Iyotake, which means "Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down." So I never told anybody because my mother said if you did, "your life will never be the same." She told me that I have to live as Ernie LaPointe. And now I understand what she meant, because if I had said anything about this as a kid growing up, people would have treated me differently.
One of my aunts told me in 1992 to show the world that there are real blood descendants of Sitting Bull. So that's when I came out and started this difficult path of trying to straighten up his story. A lot of people contact me and claim to be related to Sitting Bull, but they always say things that give them away pretty easily. It happens to all Natives. Like I went to Cherokee, North Carolina, a couple weeks ago and they're all bent out of shape down there because they meet people who are non-Native who say, "My grandmother was a Cherokee princess." But, there is no such thing as kings, queens or princesses in our culture. [laughs] Even right as we're talking, there are people on the Internet claiming to be related to Sitting Bull. Now, because of Smithsonian's documentation and research, I can prove all of the blood descendants to the great grand level.
What was it like to read the books in school talking about your great-grandfather?
For a long time, I thought my mother was lying to me. The stories she told me versus the books I was reading were very different. Plus, when I was growing up there might be one history book with one paragraph about Natives in it and that's it. The books would always call us Sioux and my mother would call us Lakota. And the stories about my great-grandfather were hard to read because they called him a killer, the killer of [General] Custer. My mom never said anything like that. People need to understand what you're writing about. It's a difficult life to write about unless you have experienced it. I want to try to tell it from my heart; I speak of my great-grandfather with reverence and respect because he cared for his people and he was one of many Natives that exhibited love, care and compassion for them.
A lot of documentaries and textbooks misrepresent your history. How do you cope?
We have to understand how to look at the stories of Natives before they pass on into history. My main goal is to be the voice of my great-grandfather, straighten up all the myths and explain who he really was.
What is one misconception about Sitting Bull that you want to set straight?
He was not born on the bank of Grand River in South Dakota, but he was born on Yellowstone River, south of Miles City, Montana. That is one of the biggest misconceptions in Sitting Bull's history. It's a shock to most people because everybody reads the history books that say he was born in South Dakota. I went up there and visited this place south of Miles City; it's a beautiful place. I had this warm feeling in my heart when I was walking around there, and I knew that's where he was born. But, when I go to Grand River, I have a feeling of sadness because it's right near where Sitting Bull was murdered—not where he was born. This is what my mother told me. Also, he wanted to be known as a sun dancer. The sun dance is a ceremony that a man does where he gives all of his energy. You dance for four days with no food or water. This is dance for the people's health and fertility, and its main purpose is to help our culture go on.