A living descendant of famous Lakota leader Sitting Bull has been confirmed using a new technique to analyze parts of the historical character’s DNA.
Scientists were able to trace the family lineage from ancient DNA to verify that 73-year-old Ernie Lapointe of South Dakota is Sitting Bull’s grandson and the closest living descendant. The results, published Wednesday in Science Advances MagazineLaPointe, likely assisting in his long battle to move the remains of a Lakota leader from their current burial site in Mobridge, South Dakota, to a site he said had a greater cultural connection to his great-grandfather.
Eske Willerslev, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Cambridge, said his research typically focuses on putting ancient DNA together to understand human genetic diversity and how different groups of people around the world are similar and distinct. But he could not miss the opportunity to study the DNA of the Sitting Bull.
“I have always been very fascinated by Sitting Bull because in many ways he was the exemplary leader – brave and intelligent, but also kind,” said Willerslev, who is also director of the GeoGenetics Center of Excellence at the University of Copenhagen.
Sitting Bull, born in 1831, was the chief and physician of Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. He united the Sioux tribes across the Great Plains in the late nineteenth century and led the resistance against settlers who were invading tribal lands. After he was murdered by Native American police in 1890, a military doctor at Fort Yates Military Base in North Dakota took a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair and his wool pants.
The hair and leggings were acquired by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in 1896, but both pieces were returned to Lapointe and his family over 10 years ago.
When Willerslev heard more than a decade ago about Lapointe’s efforts to demand that the Lakota chief’s bones be reburied, Willerslev said he felt compelled to help.
“I got in touch because I’m an old DNA researcher,” he said. “I told LaPointe, ‘If you want to do that, I think I can help you.'”
Obtaining enough usable fragments of a Sitting Bull’s DNA from a small hair sample has proven to be a challenge. Willerslev said the hair 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 – which is very little for the standard methods of DNA analysis,” he said. “So we had to develop a new method.”
It took scientists 14 years to develop a technique to search for “autosomal DNA,” a sexless DNA that people inherit from their mother and father.
The researchers compared the genetic DNA from a Sitting Bull hair sample with DNA samples from LaPointe and other Lakota Sioux to establish the family relationship.
Genealogical studies usually focus on sex-specific genetic matches, such as on the Y chromosome, which is passed on to male descendants, or specific DNA in mitochondria that is passed on from mothers to their offspring. But since LaPointe has claimed to be linked to Sitting Bull on his mother’s side, Willerslev said his team cannot rely on these traditional methods.
While confirming Sitting Bull’s lineage may help Lapointe win a dispute over his great-grandfather’s final resting place, the study’s findings likely do not represent an “aha” moment for Lakota and tribal communities, said Kim Talber, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Indigenous Studies. other.
“As far as I know, there has never been any real challenge to Ernie Lapointe and his direct lineage to his Sitting Pole siblings,” said Talbert, a member of Sesitun Wahabiton Uoyate. “We have the detailed genealogical chains that we preserve through oral history and now also documenting tribal genealogy.”
She added that these types of studies are complex because they risk exploiting more indigenous communities.
“Anytime we partner with a scientist to reaffirm genetic definitions of what it means to be Aboriginal, we are de facto helping to support their definitions over our own,” Talbert said. “But we are caught between a rock and a hard place because the settlers’ institutions control the disposal of the remains of Sitting Bull.”
Willerslev said the new method of DNA analysis could be used to confirm other family relationships between living and historical people or to aid in forensic investigations where DNA evidence may be scarce.
It is also possible, he added, to use autosomal DNA in other high-level genealogical studies.
“In principle, you can investigate whoever you want – from outlaws like Jesse James to the family of the Russian Tsar, the Romanov family,” Willerslev said in a statement. “If there is access to ancient DNA – usually extracted from bones, hair or teeth – it can be examined in the same way.”