The great-grandson of the legendary Lakota Sioux Chief Sitting Bull — famous for his victory over US Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer in the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn — has been confirmed using a groundbreaking new method to analyze family lineages.
“Over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull,” Ernie LaPointe said in a press release. The latest DNA evidence helps to bolster the family’s concerns over Sitting Bull’s final resting place.
As it stands now, people can pay their respects to Sitting Bull at two official gravesites; one at Fort Yates, North Dakota, and one at Mobridge, South Dakota. LaPointe and his two sisters believe that his bones lie at Mobridge, a place that has no significant connection to Sitting Bull.
While the latest study bolsters LaPointe’s claims, it also marks a landmark way in which to match other historic figures to their living descendants.
According to the study that was published on October 27 in the journal Science Advances “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. Hence, this study opens the possibility for broadening genealogical research, even when only minor amounts of ancient genetic material are accessible.”
“In principle,” according to Eske Willerslev, director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Cambridge, “you could investigate whoever you want – from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs. If there is access to old DNA – typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way.”
In 2007 the Smithsonian repatriated Sitting Bull’s scalp lock to LaPointe and his family, but it has taken 14 years for scientists to develop the latest method of DNA testing. LaPointe agreed to allow Willerslev to conduct genetic testing on the lock of hair, but before doing so, LaPointe asked Willerslev to take part in a ceremony where Sitting Bull’s spirit gave his blessing to the study, the scientist told the AFP news agency.
During the ceremony LaPointe burned a large portion of the lock, leaving the researchers with roughly just 1.5 inches to use, which Willerslev believed was “disastrous” at the time.
Yet the burning forced the team to become innovative, and after over a decade the scientists managed to perfect the method and find a usable piece of DNA. The “technique searches for autosomal DNA in genetic fragments in the body sample. Because we inherit half our autosomal DNA from our father and half from our mother, this means genetic matches can be checked no matter whether the relative is on the father’s or mother’s side of the family,” the news release said.
The latest technology has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt — more than birth and death certificates, a family tree, and historical records — that LaPointe is the great grandson of the man who handed the U.S. military one of its greatest defeats.
To this day the battle, often dubbed Custer’s Last Stand remains, as author Robert Nightengale puts it, “one of the most overly intellectualized and politicized events in American history.”
On June 25, 1876, Custer and more than a third of the elite 7th Cavalry Regiment lost their lives in an epic struggle with the Plains Indians, led by Sitting Bull. Fourteen years later Sitting Bull was shot and killed by a U.S. Indian Agent acting on the behalf of the U.S. government.
Now, with DNA evidence to back up LaPointe, there’s newfound hopes to rebury the Native American’s bones in a resting place befitting the great leader.