Native American Ernie LaPointe has dedicated much of his life to promoting the traditions of the Hunkpapa Lakota people, and the story of its most famous leader, Sitting Bull, who he has always said was his great-grandfather. Now, a new DNA sequencing method that can analyse family lineages using DNA fragments from their long-deceased relatives confirms his identity.
Who was Sitting Bull?
Sitting Bull, whose real name was Tatanka Iyotake, is believed to have been born in 1831. He helped his people stop the federal government taking ownership of their lands. Legend says that he had a series of visions that inspired the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn, in which he and about two thousand other Native Americans defeated US Army forces and killed the famous officer and cavalry commander George Armstrong Custer.
Surrender and Death
The Battle of the Little Bighorn was part of the Great Sioux War, which Native Americans ultimately lost. Sitting Bull surrendered to the US government in 1881, and was allowed to live in Standing Rock Reservation, which is in North and South Dakota. It was here that he was killed in 1890 by so-called “Indian agency police”, while they were trying to arrest him over concerns that he was planning another resistance campaign.
LaPointe’s mother had always told her son that he was the great-grandson of Sitting Bull, and in 2007 the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History used historical evidence to verify that claim. They returned a lock of Sitting Bull’s hair to him and his family, as well as a pair of leggings that the leader had been wearing when he’d been killed. In 2021, DNA experts from the University of Copenhagen used a strand of that hair to provide scientific proof of LaPointe’s identity.
Searching for Respect
Now seventy-three, LaPointe, who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, has had a difficult life and has had to overcome a lot of adversity. He is now a respected figure in the Native American community and considered an authoritative voice on Sitting Bull. The president of the Sitting Bull Family Foundation, he is also the subject of a 2013 documentary called Sitting Bull’s Voice. He told The New York Times that he hopes the DNA results will help his campaign to move Sitting Bull’s remains from their burial site in South Dakota, which he says has been desecrated, to a place “where he will be respected.”