A lock of hair from the head of legendary Lakota chief Sitting Bull had been stored for over a century at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington at room temperature in a glass box. Now Sitting Bull’s lock of hair has been used to prove that a man named Ernie Lapointe is his great-grandson.
Lapointe said that “over the years many people have tried to question the relationship my sisters and I have with Sitting Bull.”
A team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Center published their findings in the journal Science Advances. They compared DNA from the lock of hair, which was transferred to Lapointe in 2007 after new laws on repatriation of museum objects were passed.
In a press release, Willerslev called Sitting Bull a “hero since I was a boy.” So when he heard that Lapointe had received the lock of hair from the chief, he saw an opportunity.
“I wrote to Lapointe to explain to him that I specialize in the analysis of ancient DNA and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honor if I was allowed to compare DNA. of Ernie and her sisters with DNA from the Native American leader’s hair when it was returned to them, ”he said.
Willerslev and his team of fellow scientists faced a multitude of problems. First, Lapointe said he was related to Sitting Bull on his mother’s side, which meant that a mitochondrial approach – which would compare DNA in mitochondria that passes from mother to offspring – wouldn’t work.
The scientists therefore looked for autosomal DNA in the genetic fragments they extracted from Sitting Bull’s hair. It took them 14 years to find usable DNA from the 2 inch hair.
The team then compared Sitting Bull’s DNA to samples from Lapointe and other Lakota Sioux – and correspondence confirmed that Lapointe is his great-grandson and closest living descendant.
Tatanka-Iyotanka, known as the Sitting Bull to many, was a Native American and military leader who led 1,500 Lakota warriors to victory over General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. He was assassinated in 1890 by Indian agency police hired by the United States Government.
While no one is sure where Sitting Bull was buried, there are two official burial sites: Fort Yates, North Dakota, and Mobridge, South Dakota. Lapointe believes his great-grandfather is resting in Mobridge, a place that has no significant connection to Sitting Bull, and hopes the DNA evidence that solidified his lineage will allow him to move his great-grandfather to “a more suitable place “.
While the confirmation of Sitting Bull’s lineage is a scientific triumph for the research team, they are also excited about what their discovery means for other historical figures.
“In principle, you can investigate whoever you want – from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian Tsar’s family, the Romanovs. If there is access to old DNA – usually taken from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined the same way, ”said Willerslev.