Newly Developed DNA Technique Confirms Identity of Sitting Bull's Great-Grandson

The claim of a man to be the great-grandson Sitting Bull was confirmed by DNA from the scalp lock. This is the first time that genetic evidence has supported a family connection between an historical figure and a living descendant.
This breakthrough was possible thanks to a new technique that can yield valuable genetic information from small or fragmented samples of ancient DNA. It was developed by scientists led by Professor Eske Wilerslev of the University of Cambridge, and the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre in Denmark.

The results were published in Science Advances on Wednesday. If old DNA is available, the same techniques can be used to investigate other historical figures such as Jesse James, an outlaw, or the Russian tsar’s family.

Ancient genetic studies looked for matches between DNA from the Y chromosome that was passed down to the male line or, if the person who died was a female, specific DNA in mitochondria passed down through the mothers.

Ernie LaPointe (73 years old) claimed that he was related to Sitting Bull through his mother's side. Willerslev said to AFP.

Instead, he and his colleagues discovered a way to search non-sexy "autosomal DNA".

They found a small amount autosomal DNA in the hair samples and developed a computational algorithm to compare it with DNA from LaPointe, 13 members of the Lakota Sioux Tribe, to determine if there were any commonalities in the genome.

"Based on this, we can calculate the level of relatedness with Sitting Bull and that fits with great grandson," stated Willerslev. He added: "We are 100% certain."

"Over the years many people have tried and challenged the relationship that Sitting Bull has to me and my sisters," LaPointe stated in a University of Cambridge press release.

(Ernie Lapointe/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution/AFP)

Above: A photo of Ernie Lapointe (Sitting Bull's greatgrandson and closest living descendant).

Lapointe believes Sitting Bull's remains are currently located in Mobridge, South Dakota. This is a location that has no connection to the warrior or the culture he represented.

LaPointe had historical records which attested to the relationship such as birth certificates and death certificates. However, he sought evidence of a genetic connection to allow him to rebury his ancestor in a more suitable final resting place.

The remains must be analysed in the same way as the sample before they can be moved.

Ceremony for Medicine Man

Sitting Bull (18311890), whose real name is Tatanka Iyotanka (18311890), was a famous leader of 1,500 Lakota warriors in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, 1876. He defeated US General Custer as well as five companies of soldiers.

The "Indian Police", acting for the US government, shot him to death in 1890.

(Handout/National Portrait Gallery Smithsonian Institution/AFP

Above: A photograph of Sitting Bull, a legendary Native American leader taken in 1885.

Willerslev stated, "I have always been fascinated by Sitting Bull. When I was young I dreamed to be a Native American."

Willerslev learned of LaPointe’s quest for his DNA to be confirmed a decade ago and offered his services.

Sitting Bull's scalp lock, which was confiscated by the Smithsonian Institution and returned to LaPointe in 2007, was given to LaPointe. Willerslev wanted to verify that the scientist's intentions were honest.

LaPointe asked Willerslev if he would participate in a ceremony that involved a medicine man and drummers, as well as chanting in darkened rooms.

Willerslev stated, "A blue-green light appeared at the center of the room. I am a natural scientist, so I thought that it was the medicine man with a lamp. But when I reached out into the darkness, nobody was there."

Then, he and his hosts went off to smoke a Lakota Pipe and eat buffalo meat. LaPointe informed LaPointe that the strange light was Sitting Bull's spirit and gave his blessing to the study.

LaPointe, however, gave Willerslev four centimeters only of the lock's more than 30-cm-long length. The rest was then burned in accordance with the spirit’s instructions.

Willerslev believed at the time that "it was catastrophic" and that he wouldn't have enough DNA left. However, the circumstances forced Willerslev and his team to create their new innovative method over the next ten year.

Agence France-Presse