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South Dakotan identified as Sitting Bull great-grandson, using tests of DNA fragments from chief's hair

The research results gives Sitting Bull's great-grandson leverage to potentially remove disputed remains of the legendary Lakota chief from a memorial on the Standing Rock reservation near Mobridge, South Dakota. The site has no direct link to Sitting Bull.

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Sitting Bull as photographed by David F. Barry, circa 1885. Library of Congress photo / Special to The Forum

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A DNA analysis of a tiny lock of hair from Sitting Bull has definitively identified a living descendent of the legendary Lakota chief: Ernie LaPointe of South Dakota.

The news comes as no surprise to LaPointe, 73, who has long maintained he was Sitting Bull's great-grandson. But the research results give him and his family leverage to potentially remove disputed remains of their ancestor from a memorial site on the Standing Rock reservation near Mobridge, South Dakota. The site has no direct link to Sitting Bull.

"Over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull," Lapointe said in a news release.

Lapointe and his sisters said in 2007 they would seek to move Sitting Bull's remains to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, a move welcomed by the site's federal administrators.

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Sitting Bull great grandson Ernie LaPointe, left, sits next to South Dakota Rep. Tamara St. John, R-Sisseton, North Dakota Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, and then-U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland, D-New Mexico, at an event in Bismarck, North Dakota, June 23, 2019 (File / Forum News Service)

Sitting Bull was a famed chief of the Lakota and a renowned military leader. He led an alliance of Indigenous warriors to victory over Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his 7th Cavalry troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, in 1876.

Later forced onto what is now the Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull was shot and killed in 1890 by police assigned to arrest him by federal authorities. He was buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota.

There are multiple versions as to where his body is now. There have long been unconfirmed stories that followers spirited his remains away to Canada. In 1953, a group of businessmen from Mobridge, South Dakota, got the blessing of a Sitting Bull relative to move the chief's remains from the grave at Fort Yates.

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Rhett Albers, a co-owner of Sitting Bull Monument, dreams of the day when an interpretive center near the Lakota leader’s bust would tell Sitting Bull’s life story. The bust and Sitting Bull’s reputed second grave are across The Missouri River from Mobridge, S.D. Patrick Springer / The Forum
The Forum

Flouting state and federal authorities, they dug up the chief's bones and snuck them across the border, onto the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation. There, they buried them on a Missouri River bluff near Mobridge, poured cement over the grave and erected a memorial. The site is maintained by a private foundation.

North Dakota officials have disputed the South Dakotans actually retrieved the body of Sitting Bull, claiming they instead took the body of another man. People still visit both the Mobridge and Fort Yates burial sites.

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The analysis of Sitting Bull's hair, published Thursday , Oct. 28, in the journal Science Advances, was done by a team of scientists led by professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, and funded by the Danish National Research Foundation.

“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 U.S. legislation on the repatriation of museum objects,” Willerslev said.

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Sitting Bull’s scalp lock., donated to the Smithsonian Institution, and later returned to Sitting Bull's descendants in 2007. (Submitted / Smithsonian Institution)

He contacted LaPointe, explained his work to analyze ancient DNA and asked to compare the DNA of LaPointe to some of the hair returned by the Smithsonian.

Using a novel approach, Willerslev and his team of researchers compared what's known as autosomal DNA, which can be extracted from genetic fragments and isn't specific from either side of the subject's bloodline, unlike the more common DNA tests.

There was enough autosomal DNA in the lock of hair to compare with LaPointe's DNA, using a probabilistic method that examined its relationship to Sitting Bull's DNA versus samples from other, un-related Lakota individuals who volunteered to participate in the research.

Willerslev said the technique could be used to investigate other cases where there is access to old human DNA usually considered too degraded to test, a not uncommon situation for historical figures.

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