Native American legend Sitting Bull’s great-grandson identified using DNA from 130-year-old hair

“Sitting Bull led the fight against settlers invading tribal lands by uniting Sioux tribes across the Great Plains in the late 19th century,” said famed Lakota leader Sitting Bull’s great-grandson has been identified using DNA fragments found on a lock of his hair that had been preserved through the years.

Scientists established 73-year-old Ernie LaPointe of South Dakota as Sitting Bull’s great-grandson and closest living descendant using a novel technique that analyzes fragments of Sitting Bull’s DNA.

LaPointe has been fighting for years to move Sitting Bull’s remains to a location of more cultural relevance to his great-grandfather, who was buried in Mobridge, South Dakota, after being killed by Native American police in 1890. Sitting Bull’s real name is Tatanka Iyotake, which translates to Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down.

Sitting Bull successfully led the United Sioux tribes against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army in what is known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, one of the most significant victories of the Great Sioux War of 1876. The battle had reportedly been inspired by Sitting Bull’s visions.

After Sitting Bull was killed in 1890, an Army doctor at the Fort Yates military base in North Dakota took a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and his wool leggings. The National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC obtained both items in 1896 where they stayed for more than a century before they were repatriated to LaPointe’s family over 10 years ago.

For LaPointe, this journey has been a long one, culminating in connecting with his past. He reflected on the misrepresentation of Native Americans in popular culture, saying, “I would always look at the movies and I wanted to be John Wayne or Randolph Scott because they were big heroes. And the bad guys were always the native guys. That’s just a fantasy these people came up with.

If you look at these old Westerns from the 50s even to now, they always make themselves look good and made us look like villains. But actually, it’s the other way around. They’re the villains, the rapists, torturers, scalpers, and murderers. Not us.”

LaPointe had also wanted to retrieve Sitting Bull’s bones to give his great-grandfather a proper burial. Eske Willerslev, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Cambridge, had been fascinated by Sitting Bull and wanted to help LaPointe. “I’ve always been extremely fascinated by Sitting Bull because in many ways he was the perfect leader — brave and clever, but also kind,” said Willerslev.

Willerslev, who is also a DNA researcher and the director of the Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, offered to help LaPointe study Sitting Bull’s DNA. LaPointe accepted the help but not before conducting a ceremony involving a medicine man, drummers, and chanting in a darkened room.

Willerslev recalled a surreal experience during the ceremony where a blue-green light appeared in the room, which LaPointe believed to be Sitting Bull’s spirit giving his blessing to the study.

Upon gaining access to Sitting Bull’s lock of hair, Willerslev realized that the hair had significantly deteriorated due to being stored at room temperature for over a century. “There was very little DNA in the hair — way too little for established methods of DNA analysis,” he said.

To overcome this challenge, Willerslev employed a novel technique that involved focusing on sex-specific genetic matches, such as zeroing in on the Y chromosome, which is passed down from fathers to sons. This allowed them to extract enough DNA to establish LaPointe’s lineage to Sitting Bull with confidence.

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