DNA Analysis Confirms Claim of Sitting Bull Descendant

Formerly in the Smithsonian collections, a lock of hair taken from the Lakota leader verifies South Dakota man is his great-grandson

Sitting Bull
DNA analysis of a lock of hair taken from Sitting Bull confirms that a South Dakota man is the Lakota leader's great-grandson. Smithsonian Institution

For decades, a South Dakota man said he was the great-grandson of the legendary leader Sitting Bull, but few people believed him. Now, DNA analysis of a lock of the Lakota chief ‘s hair once stored at the Smithsonian Institution confirms his claim, reports Will Dunham of Reuters.

Using a new method of genetic analysis to determine family lineages from ancient DNA fragments, a team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev, a professor of ecology and evolution of at the University of Cambridge, verified that Ernie LaPointe is indeed a direct descendant of the Native American military commander who famously defeated Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

DNA Analysis Confirms Claim of Sitting Bull Descendant
Formerly in the Smithsonian Institution's collection, this lock of hair confirms the genetic link between Sitting Bull and a South Dakota man.  Smithsonian Institution

The researchers, also affiliated with the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Center in Denmark, used autosomal DNA from a scalp lock of Tatanka Iyotake—Sitting Bull’s Lakota name—to confirm that LaPointe was the chief’s great-grandson. Their results were published Oct. 27 in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.

“Autosomal DNA is our nongender-specific DNA,” the study’s senior author Willersley says in a statement. “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.”

LaPointe, who has three sisters, previously used birth and death certificates to establish his claim of lineage. As a living descendant, he would have the legal right to re-inter and even confirm the whereabouts of the remains of Sitting Bull, who has two official burial sites in South Dakota and North Dakota. 

DNA Analysis Confirms Claim of Sitting Bull Descendant
DNA analysis of hair confirms that Ernie LaPointe (above) of South Dakota is the great-grandson of the legendary Lakota chief Sitting Bull. Ernie LaPointe

"I feel this DNA research is another way of identifying my lineal relationship to my great-grandfather," he tells Reuters. "People have been questioning our relationship to our ancestor as long as I can remember. These people are just a pain in the place you sit—and will probably doubt these findings, also."

Born in 1831, Sitting Bull was a chief and medicine man of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. He united the Sioux tribes and fought against the U.S. government policies and settlers who invaded their tribal lands. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, Sitting Bull led a coalition of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in a major victory over the U.S. Army at the Little Bighorn River in Montana.

With his forces and supplies severely depleted, Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881 and was forced on to government land. He was killed in 1890 by Indian Affairs agents while being arrested at the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota.

After his death, an Army physician took a lock of the chief’s hair, which was eventually donated to the National Museum of Natural History in 1896, reports Timothy Bella of the Washington Post. Staff at the Smithsonian museum returned the lock to LaPointe and his relatives in 2007. Most of the hair was burned in a spiritual ceremony, though some was kept for further study.

Using that sample, scientists were able to establish the lineal connection between LaPointe and Sitting Bull, the study says. Willerslev and other researchers worked for 14 years to develop a method of extracting usable DNA from the extremely degraded hair. The new technique is based on analysis of non-sex-specific genes that people inherit from either parent.

“To our knowledge, this is the first published example of a familial relationship between contemporary and a historical individual that has been confirmed using such limited amounts of ancient DNA across such distant relatives,” the study says.