Living descendant of Sitting Bull confirmed by analysis of DNA from the legendary leader’s hair.

DNA taken from Sitting Bull's scalp lock has confirmed a man's claim that he is the great-grandson and great-granddaughter of Native American leader Sitting Bull. This is the first time that ancient DNA has been used for the confirmation of a family relationship between historical and living individuals.
A new method of analysing family lines using ancient DNA fragments was used to confirm the results. It was developed by scientists from the University of Cambridge and Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre. Science Advances published the results today.

The technique looks for autosomal DNA in genetic fragments taken from a body specimen. Because we inherit half our autosomal DNA (half from our father, half from our mom), this allows us to check for genetic matches regardless of whether the ancestor is from the father's or mother's side.

The autosomal DNA of Sitting Bull, a Lakota Sioux leader, was compared with DNA samples from Ernie Lapointe (and other Lakota Sioux). The match confirmed that Sitting Bull is Sitting Bull’s great-grandson and closest living descendant.

"Autosomal DNA" is our non-gender-specific genetic DNA. "We were able to locate enough autosomal DNA in Sitting Bull’s hair sample and compare it with the DNA from Ernie Lapointe, Lakota Sioux, and we were thrilled to see that it matched," stated Professor Eske Willerslev, University of Cambridge's Department of Zoology, Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre and senior author of this report.

Lapointe stated that "over the years many people have tried and questioned the relationship that me and my sisters have with Sitting Bull."

Lapointe believes Sitting Bull's bones are currently located in Mobridge, South Dakota. This is a location that has no connection to Sitting Bull or the culture he represented. Lapointe also concerns about the burial site's care. Sitting Bull is buried at Fort Yates in North Dakota, and Mobridge in Mobridge. Both are open to visitors.


Lapointe now plans to rebury the bones of the great Native American leader in a more suitable location, based on DNA evidence.

This new technique can also be used in cases where very little genetic data is available, such as the one used here. This work opens the door to similar DNA testing for the relationship between long-dead historical figures, and their potential living descendants.

This technique can also be used to answer critical questions based upon old human DNA, which might have previously been too damaged to analyse -- such as in forensic investigations.

"In principle, anyone you wish to investigate could be investigated, from criminals like Jesse James, to the Romanovs' family, the Russian tsar. Willerslev is a Fellow at St John's College in Cambridge.

The scientists spent 14 years trying to extract useful DNA from the Sitting Bull's 5-6 cm hair. It was very damaged, having been kept at room temperature for more than a century in Washington's Smithsonian Museum. The hair was finally returned to Lapointe and his sisters on 2007-07.


This technique is different from other traditional DNA analysis methods, which seek to find a genetic match between specific DNA on the Y chromosome and the male line. If the long-dead person were a female, the mitochondrial DNA passed from her offspring to her offspring. Both are not reliable and could not be used in this instance because Lapointe claimed that he was related to Sitting Bull from his mother's side.

Tatanka Iyotanka is better known as the Native American leader, military leader Sitting Bull (1831-1890). He led 1,500 Lakota warriors to the Battle of the Little Bighorn 1876. The battle saw the destruction of US General Custer's five companies of soldiers and the leader of the Native American movement Tatanka Iyotanka. This bloody feat, also known as 'The Battle of the Greasy Grass,' will always be a symbol of Native Americans' resistance to the white man’s insatiable appetite for imperialism-building. The 'Indian Police' was acting for the US government when Sitting Bull was assassinated.

Since I was a child, Sitting Bull has been my hero. His courage and drive are admirable. "That's why I nearly choked on my coffee when in 2007, I read in a magazine that the Smithsonian Museum had decided, in accordance to new US legislation regarding the repatriation museum objects, to return Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe (and his three sisters)," said Willerslev.

He said, "I wrote to Lapointe explaining that I specialize in the analysis and interpretation of ancient DNA and that Sitting Bull was an inspiration to me. I would consider it a great honor if I could compare the DNA from Ernie and his sisters to the DNA that was returned to them by the Native American leader's hair."

The familial relationship between Sitting Bull and LaPointe was established based on birth, death, and family trees, as well as historical records. The new genetic analysis adds an additional layer of evidence to support his claim.

To ensure Sitting Bull's genetic match, the remains of the Mobridge burial ground must be analysed in the same way as the hair samples. Lapointe, under US law, holds the legal rights to Sitting Bull’s genetic data and can decide who should perform the analysis.

The Danish National Research Foundation funded this research.