DNA confirms living descendant of Native American warrior chief Sitting Bull

After 14 grueling years of analysis, a lock of the historic leader's hair reveals the identity of his great-grandson.

Monisha Ravisetti Former Science Writer
Monisha Ravisetti was a science writer at CNET. She covered climate change, space rockets, mathematical puzzles, dinosaur bones, black holes, supernovas, and sometimes, the drama of philosophical thought experiments. Previously, she was a science reporter with a startup publication called The Academic Times, and before that, was an immunology researcher at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York. She graduated from New York University in 2018 with a B.A. in philosophy, physics and chemistry. When she's not at her desk, she's trying (and failing) to raise her online chess rating. Her favorite movies are Dunkirk and Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.
Monisha Ravisetti
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An image of the legendary warrior chief Sitting Bull. 

Smithsonian Institution

Ernie Lapointe is a Native American author and Sun Dancer, and for years, has maintained he's the closest living descendant of legendary Lakota warrior chief Sitting Bull. DNA analysis just scientifically verified those claims.

"Many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull," Lapointe said in a statement. Even though the esteemed writer has presented birth certificates, detailed family trees and historical records to corroborate his connection to the ancient chief, some believed he lacked concrete evidence of a familial tie.

To put an end to the debate, University of Cambridge geneticists crafted a way to extract DNA from a lock of Sitting Bull's hair. Then they compared the resulting genetic data with Lapointe's. It was a match. 

Calling this the first time DNA analysis has ever been used to trace bloodlines between living and historical individuals, the researchers published their results Wednesday in the journal Science Advances

"In principle, you could investigate whoever you want," said lead investigator Eske Willerslev of the University of Cambridge and Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre. "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."

Willerslev's soft spot for the Native American leader led him to focus on unveiling the true members of Sitting Bull's bloodline. "Sitting Bull has always been my hero, ever since I was a boy," Willerslev said. "I admire his courage and his drive."

In the late 1800s, Tatanka Iyotake, which translates literally to Buffalo Bull Who Sits Down -- named in celebration of his bravery -- led his tribe's resistance against United States troops. He oversaw more than 1,000 Lakota warriors in the sanguine Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, defeating the US soldiers who attempted to confine tribes to certain areas, now known as reservations. The chief was assassinated on the morning of Dec. 15, 1890 after being woken in his bed by Indian police


Sitting Bull's great-grandson, Ernie Lapointe. 

E. Lapointe

Willerslev says he almost choked on his coffee while reading a magazine article in 2007 that said the Smithsonian Museum had decided to return Sitting Bull's hair to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters.

"I wrote to Lapointe and explained that I specialized in the analysis of ancient DNA," Willerslev said, "and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honor if I could be allowed to compare the DNA of Ernie and his sisters with the DNA of the Native American leader's hair." 

An inheritance study spanning centuries

It took Willerslev and his team about 14 years to figure out how to uncover and piece together readable DNA from Sitting Bull's lock of hair, as it wasn't smooth and silky like the hair we find on our own heads. It was degraded, old and broken.


A lock of Sitting Bull's hair. 

Eske Willerslev

Once they finally made headway in picking out usable sections of genetic information, the researchers compared non-sex-specific, or autosomal, DNA fragments to find similarities with DNA from members of the Lakota tribe -- including Lapointe.

Willerslev's project looked to autosomal DNA rather than standard inheritance studies that usually isolate sex-specific DNA.

Biologically male individuals have a final chromosome of Y, and biologically female individuals have a final chromosome of X as well as unique mitochondrial DNA in their body. When two people have a child, if the child is a male, the male parent passes down the Y chromosome and a female parent's specific DNA isn't transferred.

Typically, DNA bloodline tracing is performed with genetic fragments correlated with that either that male-specific DNA or female-specific DNA that's passed down, which means male offspring can only be traced to a biologically male parent. That's because the progeny had to receive the Y chromosome. And vice versa.

Lapointe, however, alleged that his blood tie to Sitting Bull comes from his mother's side. Because Lapointe is biologically male, he wouldn't have inherited her sex-specific DNA, so such DNA tracking couldn't catch that "mother's side" tie to Sitting Bull.

Autosomal DNA, on the other hand, refers to other pairs of chromosomes -- half inherited from the female parent and half from the male parent. 

Upon cross-checking Lapointe's autosomal DNA with Sitting Bull's, Willerslev says his team was "delighted to find that it matched."

With Willerslev's new, DNA-backed proof of Sitting Bull's bloodline, Lapointe hopes to honor his great-grandfather by formally burying his remains somewhere more meaningful than his current, arbitrary resting place in the Dakotas.