A living descendant of famous leader Lakota Sitting Bull has been confirmed using a new technique to analyze fragments of the historical figure’s DNA.
Scientists were able to trace family lines from ancient DNA to verify that Ernie LaPointe, 73, of South Dakota, is the great-grandson and closest living descendant of Sitting Bull. The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, will likely help LaPointe in his long-standing fight to move the remains of Chief Lakota from their current burial site in Mobridge, South Dakota, to a location he believes has more cultural relevance to his grand-grandfather.
Eske Willerslev, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Cambridge, said his research normally focuses on reconstructing ancient DNA to understand human genetic diversity and how different groups of people around the world are. similar and distinct. But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study Sitting Bull’s DNA.
“I have always been extremely fascinated with Sitting Bull because in many ways he was the perfect leader – brave and smart, but also kind,” said Willerslev, who is also director of the Center of Excellence in Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen.
Sitting Bull, born in 1831, was chief and healer of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. He united the Sioux tribes across the Great Plains at the end of the 19th century and led the resistance against the settlers who were invading the tribal lands. After being killed by Native American police in 1890, an army medic at the Fort Yates military base in North Dakota took a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and his woolen leggings.
The hair and leggings were obtained by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in 1896, but both items were repatriated to LaPointe and his family more than 10 years ago.
When Willerslev heard about LaPointe’s efforts over a decade ago to claim the Lakota chief’s bones for new burial, Willerslev said he felt obligated to help.
“I reached out because I am a former DNA researcher,” he said. “I said to LaPointe, ‘If you want to do this, I think I can help you.'”
Obtaining enough usable fragments of Sitting Bull’s DNA from the small hair sample proved difficult. Willerslev said the hair had deteriorated severely after being stored at room temperature at the National Museum of Natural History for more than a century.
“There was very little DNA in the hair – far too little for established methods of DNA analysis,” he said. “So we had to develop a new method.”
It took 14 years for scientists to develop a technique to research “autosomal DNA,” which is gender-non-specific DNA that people inherit from both mothers and fathers.
The researchers compared autosomal DNA from Sitting Bull’s hair sample to DNA samples from LaPointe and other Lakota Sioux to establish the family link.
Typically, genealogical studies focus on gender-specific genetic matches, such as zeroing on the Y chromosome, which is passed down to male offspring, or specific DNA in mitochondria that is passed from mothers to their offspring. But since LaPointe was claiming to be linked to Sitting Bull on his mother’s side, Willerslev said his team couldn’t rely on these more traditional methods.
Kim TallBear, associate professor in the Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta, said while confirming that Sitting Bull’s family line could help LaPointe win the dispute over the last home of his great-great- Father, the study’s findings probably don’t represent an “aha” moment for the Lakota and other tribal communities.
“To my knowledge, there has never been a real challenge for Ernie LaPointe and his siblings who descend directly from Sitting Bull,” said TallBear, a member of Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate. “We have detailed genealogies which we maintain through oral history and now also tribal genealogical documentation.”
She added that these types of studies are complicated because they risk further exploiting indigenous communities.
“Every time we participate with a scientist in reaffirming genetic definitions of what it means to be indigenous, we are de facto helping to enforce their definitions against our own,” TallBear said. “But we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because the settler institutions control the disposition of Sitting Bull’s remains.”
Willerslev said the new DNA analysis method could be used to confirm other family relationships between living and historical people or to aid forensic investigations where DNA evidence may be scarce.
It is also possible to use autosomal DNA for other high-level genealogical studies, he added.
“In principle, you can investigate whoever you want, from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs,” Willerslev said in a statement. “If there is access to old DNA – usually taken from bones, hair or teeth – they can be examined the same way.”