DNA from Sitting Bull’s hair confirms great-grandson’s ancestry claim

A South Dakota man’s claim that he is the great-grandson of Sitting Bull has been proven by researchers, thanks to DNA from a scalp lock of the famous 19th-century chief.

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Researchers determined that the scalp lock belonging to Tatanka Iyotake, the leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux tribe, matched the DNA of Ernie LaPointe, who has claimed to be a descendant of Sitting Bull, The Wall Street Journal reported.

LaPointe had previously proven his relationship to Sitting Bull from a family tree, birth and death records, and a review of historical records, the newspaper reported. Sitting Bull is best known for his victory in the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Gen. George Custer in 1876; he died in 1890.

“I feel this DNA research is another way of identifying my lineal relationship to my great-grandfather,” LaPointe, 73, of Lead South Dakota, told 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.”

Geneticists and scientists, led by Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, published their results Wednesday in the journal Science Advances.

“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 researchers said in Science Advances.

“It’s cool from a forensic point of view,” Keolu Fox, a geneticist at the University of California at San Diego, who was not involved in the research, told Science magazine. “But the real question is, would Sitting Bull have been comfortable with this?”

LaPointe had no qualms and wanted verification. He got it.

Sitting Bull’s lock of hair had been stored for more than a century in Washington’s Smithsonian Institution at room temperature in a glass box, CBS News reported. Before Sitting Bull’s burial at Fort Yates in North Dakota, Horace Deeble, the post surgeon, took the chief’s scalp lock and his cloth leggings as souvenirs, according to Science Advances. In 1896 he donated the braid to the Smithsonian, which kept it until the museum transferred it to LaPointe and his sisters in 2007.

“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 in a news release. “I wrote to LaPointe and explained that I specialized 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 could be allowed to compare the DNA of Ernie and his three sisters with the DNA of the Native American leader’s hair when it was returned to them.”

In a December 2007 ceremony in the basement of his South Dakota home, LaPointe called on Sitting Bull’s spirit for guidance, as Willerslev listened in the darkened space, Science magazine reported.

“My grandfather chuckled and said he would allow Eske to take an inch,” LaPointe told the magazine. “But only an inch. The rest, he said, we had to burn.”

Researchers took 14 years to discover a way of extracting useable DNA from the hair, which was degraded due to the conditions at the Smithsonian.

The hair was covered in toxic chemicals, Science magazine reported. Nineteenth-century curators had doused the braid in arsenic to preserve it, further degrading its DNA. Researchers recovered less than 1% of Sitting Bull’s genome from the sample, but it was enough, the magazine reported.

According to the journal article, the DNA technique used to prove LaPointe’s relationship to Sitting Bull differs from traditional DNA testing analysis. Traditional analysis aims to specifically match DNA “in the Y chromosome passed down the male line, or, if the long-dead person was female, specific DNA in the mitochondria passed from a mother to her offspring,” according to Science Advances.

Researchers used an autosomal DNA search, since people inherit half of their autosomal DNA from each parent.

“This means genetic matches can be checked irrespective of whether an ancestor is on the father or mother’s side of the family,” according to Science Advances.

LaPointe claimed to descend from Sitting Bull through his mother’s side of the family, as Sitting Bull only had daughters.

The results of the new testing open up possibilities to identify descendants of other notable people, researchers said.

“In principle, you could investigate whoever you want -- from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs,” Willerslev said in a news release. “If there is access to old DNA -- typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way.”