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Native American legend Sitting Bull’s great-grandson identified through DNA from 130-year-old hair

This photograph provided by the National Portrait Gallery of legendary Native American leader Sitting Bull was taken in 1885. A man's claim to be the great-grandson of Sitting Bull has been confirmed using DNA extracted from Sitting Bull's hair. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/AFP) (Handout/National Portrait Gallery, Smith)

The great-grandson of Sitting Bull, the famed Lakota leader, has been identified through a novel method of analyzing DNA of long-dead people by examining the 19th-century Native American legend’s hair, researchers announced Wednesday.

The results, published in the journal Science Advances, conclude Ernie LaPointe, 73, of South Dakota, is the closest living descendant of Sitting Bull, who died more than 130 years ago.

“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,” wrote researchers from the University of Cambridge, adding that the findings could open the door for others whose DNA can be extracted from remains such as hair, bones or teeth.

LaPointe, of Lead, S.D., said he felt vindicated by the study’s results after speaking out about his relationship to Sitting Bull for years. The findings could also help LaPointe in his ongoing fight to move Sitting Bull’s remains from his burial site in Mobridge, S.D., to another location the descendant says would have more of a significant connection to the culture he represented.

“It’s just another way of identifying the relationship to my ancestor,” he told The Washington Post. “With this it’s a lot more definite. This is a scientific way of determining our lineage. You can’t break that lineage now. No one can come in and say it’s wrong.”

Sitting Bull, whose birth name was Tatanka Iyotake, was born in 1831 and became chief and medicine man of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux. He is best known for uniting the Sioux tribes across the Great Plains and leading the resistance for years against U.S. government policies and settlers who were invading tribal lands. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, Sitting Bull had a foreshadowing vision of the events to come that inspired the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in their overwhelming victory against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army, led by George Armstrong Custer. Sitting Bull was killed in 1890 by Native American police working for the U.S. government as they were trying to arrest him on the Standing Rock Reservation.

After Sitting Bull’s death, Horace Deeble, an Army physician at the Fort Yates military post in North Dakota, took a lock of the Native American legend’s hair and his wool leggings, despite not having any authority or permission. In 1896, the National Museum of Natural History in D.C. obtained Sitting Bull’s hair and leggings. The museum returned the items to LaPointe and his three sisters in 2007, according to the study. Though most of the lock of hair was “burned in a spiritual ceremony,” a small piece of it was saved for future study, researchers said.

To that point, the familial relationship between LaPointe and Sitting Bull was based on birth and death certificates, as well as a family tree and a review of historical records. But LaPointe often heard from doubters about the legitimacy of the link.

“Over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull,” LaPointe said in a news release to Cambridge.

When Eske Willerslev read a magazine article about how the hair and leggings had been returned to LaPointe and his family, he said he “almost choked on my coffee.” Since he was a young boy, Willerslev, a professor at Cambridge and head of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, saw Sitting Bull as a hero for his courage and drive. He contacted LaPointe to see if more could be done to examine the DNA on Sitting Bull’s hair.

“I wrote to LaPointe and explained that I specialised in the analysis of ancient DNA, and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honour if I could be allowed to compare the DNA of Ernie and his sisters with the DNA of the Native American leader’s hair when it was returned to them,” Willerslev, senior author of the report, said in the news release.

LaPointe agreed, thus kicking off what would be a 14-year journey to analyze Sitting Bull’s hair. Scientists struggled to find a way to extract usable DNA from a lock of hair measuring just five to six centimeters (about two inches) in length. In addition to most of it being burned in the spiritual ceremony, the hair was “extremely degraded” over the years because it had been stored for more than a century at room temperature at the Smithsonian Museum, the news release noted.

Knowing there was so little DNA to work with, Willerslev and the team had to come up with a new method going forward. That’s how they eventually developed an analysis technique focusing on “autosomal DNA,” a non-sex-specific DNA that people inherit from a mother and a father.

Developing the technique proved to be crucial since traditional genealogy studies focus on sex-specific genetic matches regularly focusing on the Y chromosome, which is passed down to males. With LaPointe claiming to be related to Sitting Bull on his mother’s side, autosomal DNA allowed a way to analyze the sample that wasn’t so heavily reliant on gender.

The research using autosomal DNA “provides genetic support for Ernie LaPointe being the great-grandson of Sitting Bull,” researchers concluded.

“We managed to locate sufficient amounts of autosomal DNA in Sitting Bull’s hair sample, and compare it to the DNA sample from Ernie LaPointe and other Lakota Sioux — and were delighted to find that it matched,” Willerslev said.

The DNA method has the potential to do what seemed almost impossible before: connect other historical figures who’ve been dead for more than 100 years to people living today.

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

Kim TallBear, an associate professor on the faculty of Native studies at the University of Alberta, told NBC News that while there has not been a real challenge to the claim from LaPointe and his sisters about them being related to Sitting Bull, she noted studies such as this one can be complicated because of what it could mean in terms of potentially exploiting Indigenous communities.

“Any time we participate with a scientist in reaffirming genetic definitions of what it means to be Indigenous, we are de facto helping to uphold their definitions over our own,” TallBear said. “But we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place because settler institutions control the disposition of Sitting Bull’s remains.”

LaPointe will have to wait a little longer before he will have the chance to possibly move Sitting Bull’s remains elsewhere. He has not revealed where he wants to move the remains.

There are two official burial sites for Sitting Bull, in Mobridge, S.D. and Fort Yates, N.D., but LaPointe believes the Fort Yates location does not contain any of his great-grandfather’s remains.

Before Sitting Bull’s remains are possibly buried elsewhere, the remains will need to be analyzed in a similar way to ensure a genetic match between LaPointe and the Lakota leader, researchers said.

For LaPointe, the scientific discovery marks the culmination of what he calls “a journey.”

“I gave up hope after a couple of years,” LaPointe said. “I didn’t think we were going to do it.”

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