Home Archaeology DNA Analysis Confirms Great-Grandson Of Native American Leader Sitting Bull

DNA Analysis Confirms Great-Grandson Of Native American Leader Sitting Bull


A relic of Tatanka Iyotanka's scalp lock provides a strand of hair for DNA analysis to prove a familial relationship between the 19th-century leader known as Sitting Bull and a modern descendant.  (E. Willerslev, Cambridge University)

By Martin M Barillas

Scientists used the preserved hair of Tatanka Iyotanka, better known as Sitting Bull, in an innovative method of DNA testing to show a familial relationship for the first time between living and dead individuals.

In a study published in the journal Science Advances, scientists traced ancestry by searching for autosomal DNA in the genetic fragments in the sample. Each parent contributes half of the autosomal DNA in any individual, meaning that genetic matches can be made regardless of whether an ancestor is on the father’s or mother’s side of the family.

“Autosomal DNA is our non-gender-specific DNA. 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,” said study co-author Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge.

The claim of Ernie Lapointe (pictured) to be descended from Tatanka Iyotanka “Sitting Bull” was confirmed by DNA analysis. (Courtesy Ernie Lapointe)
Period photograph of Lakota Sioux leader Tatanka Iyotanka “Sitting Bull” (1831–1890). (Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.)

The match confirmed Lapointe as a great-grandson and closest living descendant of the Hunkpapa Lakota leader most known for easily defeating U.S. 7th Cavalry Lt. Col. George Custer’s battalion at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

“Over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull,” Lapointe said.

Until now, Lapointe’s descent from Sitting Bull could only be shown by birth and death certificates and the historical record.

It took 14 years for the scientists to determine how to get useable DNA from a piece of Sitting Bull’s hair measuring just a couple of inches. Stored for more than a century unrefrigerated at the Smithsonian Institution, the hair had become extremely degraded before its return to Lapointe and his sisters in 2007.

Previous DNA analyses looked for genetic matches of specific DNA in the Y male chromosome, or, if the ancestor was female, specific DNA in the mitochondria passed from a mother to her children. These are not very reliable, and neither was used in this case because Lapointe claimed to be related to Sitting Bull through his mother.

The technique in the study can be used when limited genetic data are available, as well as in old human DNA too degraded for analysis. This could be a boon for criminal forensic investigations and would enable confirmation of relationships between historical figures and their putative living descendants.

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

Four Native Americans with their interpreter. Back: Julius Meyer (interpreter) and Red Cloud. Front: Sitting Bull (1834–1890), Swift Bear and Spotted Tail. Original Artwork: Original print in sepia. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sitting Bull’s buried remains are in Mobridge, South Dakota, according to Lapointe. He fears the gravesite may not receive proper care. Currently, visitors come to two burial sites claimed for Sitting Bull: Morbridge and Fort Yates, North Dakota. With the new DNA evidence to confirm a family relationship, Lapointe plans to reinter his ancestor at an appropriate place.

Before the remains at Morbridge can be reburied, a genetic analysis would have to ensure a match to Sitting Bull. Lapointe owns the legal rights to Sitting Bull’s genetic data and thus can decide who should do the analysis.

At Standing Rock Reservation, Sitting Bull was shot to death by Indian Service agents and buried at Fort Yates in 1890. His descendants exhumed his purported remains in 1953 and reburied them at Morbridge.

Edited by Richard Pretorius and Kristen Butler

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