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Legendary Lakota leader’s grandson shares journey to prove family tree

Oral history, ceremonial connection, and documents such as enrollment records and winter counts were all the proof he and his family needed but the return of his grandfather’s hair gave them the ability to prove it another way, DNA.
Published: Nov. 3, 2021 at 6:14 PM CDT
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RAPID CITY, S.D. (KOTA) - Everybody’s related to somebody and when that somebody is famous, it can almost become bragging rights. But for others, it’s more than a claim to fame, it’s about proving their heritage.

His entire life, Ernie LaPointe was told his great grandfather was Sitting Bull, the Lakota Sioux leader who fought against General George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry in the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Despite Ernie knowing his family tree, the bloodline needed to be confirmed in order to return Sitting Bull’s remains and possessions to his family.

What kicked off the journey to confirmation was the return of Sitting Bull’s hair and leggings from the Smithsonian because of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“So when the Smithsonian guy called me in 2003 and said ‘I have these items that I have to return under NAGPRA.’ I was shocked,” said Ernie. “He came, the guy from the Smithsonian, he wanted to make sure that we are the descendants.”

Oral history, ceremonial connection, and documents such as enrollment records and winter counts were all the proof Ernie and his family needed but the return of his grandfather’s hair gave them the ability to prove it another way, DNA.

“The oral way, the ceremonial way, the paper way, and now this is a scientific way. Which is very hard to dispute,” continued Ernie. “It’s a scientific connection. And I said, in the Lakota culture, we believe in everything in fours so I figured, well, this is the fourth way.”

Working with a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge and the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, a groundbreaking technique took DNA from Sitting Bulls braid that had been at the Smithsonian for more than 100 years, confirming familial relation between a living and historical figure.

“We decided to go to Colorado Springs to visit some friends,” said Ernie. “So we’re cruising along and between here and Cheyenne, my phone goes off. I have this friend of mine in California and she threw me a text message, she said this is in the Los Angeles Times and I looked and it came on. And before we got to our motel room, we must have had a million calls, emails, text messages from all over the world.”

Ernie says this revelation isn’t about the ‘fame and fortune’ of being related to a historical figure, it’s about potentially exhuming and reburying Sitting Bull in a more appropriate location.

“The state of South Dakota said you have to have a certain proof,” continued Ernie. “There’s no disputing, ifs, ands, or ors about it. I know this. Well, I knew the others before, the other three ways but this is just a confirmation again, another way of determining that I am related to my great grandfather.”

Sitting Bull was originally buried near Fort Yates in North Dakota in 1890. More than 60 years later, he was reburied near Mobridge, South Dakota. Neither location holds major significance to Sitting Bull’s legacy.

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