United States: a descendant of the Indian chief Sitting Bull identified thanks to a genetic innovation

Sitting Bull's burial site on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation at Fort Yates, North Dakota.

AP - Matt Brown

Text by: RFI Follow

4 min

For the first time, genetic technology has made it possible to corroborate a relationship between a historical figure and a living descendant, in this case between the famous Native American chief Sitting Bull and a man who claimed to be his great-grandson.


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It is a new technique which makes it possible to obtain genetic information from a tiny, if not fragmented, sample of old DNA, developed by a team of scientists led by Prof. Eske Willerslev of the

University of Cambridge

in United Kingdom, and the Geo-Genetics Center of the Lundbeck Foundation in Denmark.

Their results were published Wednesday, October 27 in the journal

Science Advances


Previous studies, based on old genetic samples, had attempted to find matches using sexual genetic markers, notably found in the Y chromosome.

"Some 100%"

Ernie LaPointe, 73, claims to be the descendant of Sitting Bull but on the maternal side, Prof. Willerslev told AFP, which prevented the use of these techniques. With his fellow researchers, Prof. Willerslev, on the other hand, found a way to search for “autosomal” DNA, ie non-sexually labeled. They thus localized a small amount of autosomal DNA in a sample of Sitting Bull's hair before developing a computational method to compare it with the DNA of Ernie LaPointe. " 

Based on this, we can estimate the relationship to Sitting Bull,

 " said Prof. Willerslev, adding, " 

We are 100% certain 

" that Ernie LaPointe is Sitting's great-grandson. Bull.

According to him, the remains of Sitting Bull are currently located in Mobridge in South Dakota, a state which is still home to a large Native American population, in a place that bears no resonance with the history of Chief Lakota and the culture he represented. .

Ernie LaPointe thus sought to establish a genetic link in order to help him obtain the right to exhume his ancestor and transport his remains to a more appropriate place.

Little big horn

Sitting Bull, whose real name was Tatanka-Iyotanka, was born in 1831 and died in 1890. In 1876, he led 1500 Lakota warriors in the famous battle of Little Big Horn, recounted in several films including the famous

Little big man

of Arthur Penn (1970) where they crush the American troops of General Custer.

Almost ten years ago, Prof. Willerslev learned of Ernie LaPointe's quest for truth, and offered his services.

A hair mat belonging to Sitting Bull and taken after his death had been returned by a Washington museum to Ernie LaPointe in 2007, but before he passed it on to Prof. Willerslev, he wanted to know if the scientist's intentions were pure.

Hair strand of chef Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull, from which DNA was extracted.

Eske Willerslev Smithsonian Institution / AFP / File

The spirit of Sitting Bull ...

Ernie LaPointe asked Eske Willerslev to take part in a ceremony involving a medicine man (healer function among Native American tribes), percussion, and songs in a darkened room. " 

A blue-green light appeared in the middle of the room - and I'm a scientist by nature, so I thought,

'well it's the medicine man running around with a lamp


but when I stretched out my arms in the dark, there was no one there, 

”the professor said. Eske Willerslev and his hosts then smoked a Lakota pipe, and ate buffalo meat before Ernie LaPointe informed him that the mysterious light was none other than the spirit of Sitting Bull, giving his blessing to the 'study.

Ernie LaPointe, however, only passed on four centimeters of Sitting Bull's mat, which was over 30 centimeters long, and then cremated the rest, as instructed by his ancestor's spirit.

It's a disaster 

", thought Professor Willerslev at the time, considering that he would not have enough DNA left.

But circumstances forced him and his team to develop an innovative method over the next ten years.

The same method can now be used to investigate connections to other historical figures, from the bandit Jesse James, to the

Russian Imperial family

... if ancient DNA samples are available.

Ernie LaPointe, here in December 2007. AP - Pablo Martinez Monsivais





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