South Dakota author Ernie Lapointe and his sisters are now the only known living descendants of the legendary Hunkpapa Lakota Sitting Bull warrior.
Lapointe, 73, who identifies as a Lakota, has spent 14 years trying to establish his historical offspring. Now, a DNA test has finally absorbed his research to confirm that he is the grandson of the legendary Hunkpapa Chief Lakota Sioux.
Sitting Bull—whose name, Tatanka Iyotake, translates to “Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down”—helped lead about 1,000 Native Americans in a resistance against the United States’ power grab in the mid to late 19th century. It happened, famously, during the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer Last Stand (and to Lakota and other Plains Indians, the Battle of Greasy Grass) in 1876, on what is now Montana land.
After about 145 years, Lapointe is finally able to make the connection, thanks to a DNA test.
Despite providing detailed genealogical research for his family, including birth certificates, family trees, and other historical records, Lapointe cast doubt on his claims.
“I feel this DNA research is another way to determine my direct relationship to my great-grandfather,” Lapointe said in a statement, linked to the publication of his research, with the help of University of Cambridge scientists, in the journal “Science Advances” on Wednesday.
“People have been questioning our relationship with our ancestors for as long as I can remember,” he added. “These guys are just a pain where you’re sitting — and they might be suspicious of those results, too.”
The confrontation against the United States’ Seventh Cavalry, a 700-man battalion commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was a victory for the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Arapahoe people, thanks to the leadership of war heroes Crazy Horse and Chief Gal. – and inspired by the spiritual visions of Sitting Bull, who saw the battle for them in his dreams.
Sitting Bull died in 1890 at the hands of police at his home in Standing Rock Reservation, after US agents ordered his arrest, fearing he might inspire another uprising. Sitting Bull was eventually buried somewhere in South Dakota, although the exact location is disputed.
But a real strand of Sitting Bull’s hair was preserved before it was struck, and genetic researchers – including Eske Willerslev, author of the new report – have since sequenced the Lakota’s ancestral DNA.
To prove LaPointe’s origin, Willerslev compared a portion of Sitting Bull’s hair, a tuft of just 5-6 centimeters long, to his grandson’s genetic makeup – a process that took 14 years to complete.
The strand was plucked from Sitting Bull’s scalp during his lifetime and was kept in the Smithsonian’s Museum in Washington for more than a century before it was finally returned to Lapointe and his three sisters in 2007.
“To our knowledge, this is the first published example of a familial relationship between a contemporary and historical individual that has been confirmed using limited amounts of ancient DNA via such distant relatives,” the researchers wrote.
In a press release, Willerslev explained why he had to work with Lapointe.
“The sitting bull has always been my hero, since I was a boy,” said the researcher. “I admire his courage and leadership. That’s why I almost choked on my coffee when I read in a magazine in 2007 that the Smithsonian had decided to return the Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters, in accordance with new US legislation on the repatriation of museum pieces.”
Willerslev then wrote to LaPointe to ask if he “could be allowed” to perform DNA analysis of LaPointe and his sisters to prove their ancestry, adding that it would be “a great honor” to do so.
The deteriorating hair strand provided little material for testing, which limited the type of analysis available to scientists. Instead of tracing the LaPointe lineage through the Y chromosome — a more traditional method of DNA testing that traces the paternal family line — Willerslev used chromosomal DNA, or gender-non-specific DNA, to trace his mother’s line, the side of his family to which the seated bull is related.
Willerslev and his team said they were “happy to find out that they matched.”
At the same time, their findings served as a proof of concept for autosomal DNA testing in long-dead historical figures. Meanwhile, Lapointe intends to reenact the official burial ceremony at a new resting place for his great-grandfather.