Great-grandson of Sitting Bull on his history, what the future holds
A 73-year-old Lead man has been genetically linked to famed Lakota leader Sitting Bull after more than a decade
LEAD, S.D. — More than a decades worth of scientific advancement culminating in the formal identification of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull’s great-grandson and closest living relative.
“I’ve known this since the ’50s when I was a little boy…my mother told me who my grandfather was and how my relatives are,” says Ernie LaPointe, who now lives in Lead.
Sitting Bull (Tatanka Iyotake), famous chief and medicine man, was born in 1831. He led the Lakota during the Battle of Little Big Horn and was killed by Indian Agency Police in 1890.
Using a lock of hair – no more than a couple inches long – a Dutch researcher and a team of scientists developed a new method to look for autosomal DNA – which people inherit from both their mother and father.
The hair came from the Smithsonian National Museum – where it had been since 1896. A doctor at Fort Yates military base had taken the lock and a pair of Sitting Bull’s wool leggings after his death. The hair and leggings were returned to LaPointe’s family more than a decade ago.
The tests resulted in the identification of 73-year-old Ernie LaPointe – an author and Vietnam veteran – who was born on the Pine Ridge Reservation – as Sitting Bull’s great-grandson and closest living relative.
His family had come to Pine Ridge more than a century ago – when his great-grandmothers left Standing Rock following Sitting Bull’s murder. They followed the Cheyenne River down to the Badlands, and were eventually invited to the Pine Ridge Agency.
LaPointe, who has written a book and finished a documentary on his ancestors life and legacy, says he wasn’t always so open about the relation.
“I always knew that my great-grandfather was Sitting Bull, but I remember my mother used to get attacked by people from Standing Rock Reservation because they wanted to be related too – and they’re not,” LaPointe says. “She always told me don’t ever tell anybody or brag anybody that you’re related to Sitting Bull.”
His mother also helped to covertly remove Sitting Bull’s remains from Fort Yates in North Dakota, where they were reburied near Mobridge decades ago.
The site – unfortunately – has been greatly disrespected, according to LaPointe. He says a nonprofit group had even announced plans to commercialize the gravesite – something that – when he found out – LaPointe says nearly knocked him out of his chair.
LaPointe says the formal identification will help in his journey to relocate Sitting Bull to a proper burial site, along with full ceremony and honors.
“Our culture dictates to us that we need to give this certain honor to our ancestors when they pass away – but he never got that privilege – he never got that – he was just buried in a box, you know?”
He believes deeply in the Lakota culture he grew up with and lives a spiritual way of life. LaPointe says he honors and connects with his ancestors from the spirit world through Lakota ceremonies and sun dances.
When Dutch scientist Eske Willerslev came to ask LaPointe for Sitting Bull’s hair to test – LaPointe refused, saying it wasn’t his to give. Willerslev was invited to participate in a traditional ceremony where Sitting Bull’s spirit was contacted from the spirit world. During the ceremony, LaPointe says he asked his great-grandfather’s spirit about the DNA testing (which he, of course, didn’t understand), and the spirit agreed – but only for a small section. The remainder of Sitting Bull’s hair was burned and returned to the earth in a Lakota ceremony.
LaPointe continues to work out the ideal location to repatriate his great-grandfathers remains, and is also working on a movie. The family is working with the State of South Dakota to have further DNA testing conducted if Sitting Bull’s remains can be exhumed. He currently lives in Lead with his wife, Sonja, a knack for storytelling, and a great sense of humor.