Breakthrough DNA Study Proves Sitting Bull Has a Living Great-Grandson
Sitting Bull was the brave Native American leader who defeated the forces of General Custer in 1876. After analyzing DNA from a lock of the legendary warrior’s hair, scientists have now identified one of his living descendants.
On June 25, 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn near southern Montana's Little Bighorn River, Native American forces led by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull outwitted the U.S. Army troops of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer.
The team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, who published their new findings in the journal Science Advances, say the breakthrough DNA technology they used to prove that a living man was a descendant of Siting Bull will be used in the future to unravel the genetic lineages of other long-dead historical figures.
Sitting Bull’s scalp hair lock “released” from the Smithsonian artifact vaults in 2007. (Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution / Science Advances)
How Sitting Bull's Hair Lock Proved His Descendant’s Claim
The new DNA study was conducted by evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge, and his colleagues. The team analyzed DNA fragments from the legendary Native American chief's hair and confirmed that Ernie Lapointe, who has for a long time claimed to be the great-grandson of Sitting Bull, is actually the real deal.
This story begins in 2007, when according to a report in Ars Technica, Dr Willerslev “almost choked” on his morning coffee while reading a news article. A lock of Sitting Bull’s hair had been stored in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum and the story said that in accordance with new US legislation on the repatriation of museum objects, the hair had been given to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters. Knowing the hair would begin to degrade as soon as it was exposed to the air, the professor petitioned to conduct a DNA study to prove whether, or not, Ernie and his sisters were related to the great Native American leader.
Professor Willerslev explained to the Daily Mail that the claimed relationship between Sitting Bull and Ernie Lapointe had only ever been supported with a birth and death certificates, and family trees.
However, the new DNA technique offered the researchers the ability “to test relationships between living and dead individuals for the first time,” according to the researcher.
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Traditional genetic analysis either looks for DNA matches within the male Y chromosome or in the mitochondrial DNA passed down through female lines. Autosomal DNA, however, is inherited from both of our parents’ non-sex chromosomes. Compared with traditional genetic analysis, analyzing Autosomal DNA reveals much more complex family relationship data than can be deduced from the male and female lines.
It took the team 14 years to develop a way of extracting measurable “Autosomal DNA” from the 2-inch-long sample of Sitting Bull’s hair. Autosomal DNA is our non-gender-specific DNA.
The great chief’s Autosomal DNA was compared to that of Ernie Lapointe, and other Lakota Sioux individuals, and it was confirmed that they matched.
Sitting Bull and family 1881 at Fort Randall. (Von Bern / Public domain)
The New DNA Test Will Be Huge For Forensics And Archaeology
For archaeology, this breakthrough DNA technique means even tiny fragments of hair, bones and teeth recovered from historic graves can now be examined in much higher resolution. Professor Willerslev explained that theoretically “you could investigate whoever you want from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs.”
However, in the real world the researchers believe their technique could also be used to analyze modern DNA, which would have applications in forensic investigations and medicine.
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Retuning to Sitting Bull. He is, believe it or not, officially buried in Mobridge, South Dakota, and also in Fort Yates, North Dakota. However, Mr. Lapointe, the newly confirmed great grandson of Sitting Bull, believes that his relative is buried at the former location.
Now that Mr. Lapointe finally has solid DNA evidence proving his long-claimed relationship with Sitting Bull, he is attempting to move his famous ancestor’s remains to “a more appropriate resting site.”
Top image: There are no color images of Sitting Bull, but this could be him sitting with the first of his descendants, which we know exist from the breakthrough Autosomal DNA study of his hair. Source: Shchipkova Elena / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie