Tatanka Iyotake, popularly known as Sitting Bull, is famed as a 19th century leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux people – and DNA strengthens the claim that he has living descendants
A study that blends history with contemporary DNA technology has further strengthened the claim of a familial relationship between a living Native American and a historical figure: Tatanka Iyotake, popularly known as Sitting Bull.
Sitting Bull was a leader of the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux people. In 1876, he was victorious against General Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment of the US Army in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as the Battle of the Greasy Grass.
Today, Ernie LaPointe, a Native American author and president of the Sitting Bull Family Foundation, is widely accepted as the great-grandson of Sitting Bull. Now, LaPointe has had his claim strengthened by genetics.
LaPointe and his three sisters have previously used historical records, including birth and death certificates, to make a strong case of a familial relationship with Sitting Bull. In 2007, a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair that had been preserved at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC was repatriated to LaPointe and his sisters – and a small sample was sent to a team of geneticists led by Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen to allow for DNA analysis.
The outcome of the analysis was important for LaPointe, who is named as a co-author on the new study. In order to secure the right to determine the fate of the final resting place of Sitting Bull, he needed to provide irrefutable evidence that Sitting Bull was indeed his forbear. Genetic evidence would serve this purpose.
By comparing DNA from Sitting Bull’s hair with DNA from LaPointe’s saliva, the new study does indeed irrefutably establish that LaPointe is the great-grandson of the legendary leader, says Willerslev.
Willerslev says the methods generally used to establish ancestry, such as analysis of the Y chromosome, weren’t possible in this case because the DNA in the hair sample was so degraded. But it was possible to use haplotype frequency to establish a relationship. A haplotype is a set of alleles inherited from one parent. Even unrelated individuals can share common haplotypes, so Willerslev’s team took saliva samples from non-related members of LaPointe’s community, to detect haplotypes that were specific to Sitting Bull’s bloodline.
“It’s fair to say that the more material you have… the more reliable your results will be,” says Willerslev, but he is still confident that the genetic evidence is incontrovertible.
Willerslev, who has been fascinated by Sitting Bull and his legacy since childhood, attended a traditional Lakota ceremony where Sitting Bull’s spirit was resurrected to obtain permission to use the reclaimed lock of hair for scientific scrutiny.
Oglala Lakota Nation President Kevin Killer, a Lakota Sioux Native American leader, explains that hair has a special significance in Native American culture and is considered sacred and the seat of the spirit.
Killer, who wasn’t involved in the study, welcomes the research, which lends support to the culture of oral history of Indigenous people. “To see [our oral history] backed up by science… is a step in proving how strong our oral history that dates back to 10,000 years [is].”
Kimberly TallBear-Dauphine at the University of Alberta in Canada, a Dakota Native American who wasn’t involved in the study, says that LaPointe’s descent from Sitting Bull was never really contested since Lakota people’s genealogies are very well documented both through paper documentation and oral history.
“I’m sure there are benefits for scientists in the use of this technology… [but] they are simply confirming genetically what we already knew through other kinds of evidence,” she says.
Putting the study in perspective, she says: “It certainly doesn’t give Lakota people anything they didn’t already know in terms of Ernie’s relationship with Sitting Bull.”
Journal reference: Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abh2013
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