NEW YORK – An international research team has corroborated genetic ties between a man named Ernie LaPointe and his great-grandfather Tatanka Iyotake, commonly known as "Sitting Bull" — the Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux leader who defeated General Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876. The study was conducted with the help of new methods that allowed the analysis of small amounts of ancient DNA from a lock of hair.
"To our knowledge, this is the first published example of a familial relationship between [a] contemporary and a historical individual that has been confirmed using … limited amounts of ancient DNA across such distant relatives," senior author Eske Willerslev, a researcher affiliated with the University of Copenhagen's Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Center, the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, and the University of Southern Denmark, and his co-authors wrote in a paper published in Science Advances on Wednesday.
For their study, the researchers performed shotgun short-read genome sequencing on ancient DNA extracted from a lock of hair that had been taken without permission by a Fort Yates surgeon before Sitting Bull's initial burial at a site that is now in the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The hair lock was on loan to the Smithsonian Institution, along with stolen cloth leggings, before being repatriated to Sitting Bull's relatives more than a decade ago.
"Following the repatriation, most of the lock of hair was burned in a spiritual ceremony," the authors noted. "However, a small piece was saved for future study, and we here present the results analyzing this piece with the goal of determining whether Ernie LaPointe can be genetically identified as the great-grandchild of Sitting Bull."
In a statement, Willerslev explained that he "wrote to LaPointe and explained that I specialized in the analysis of ancient DNA, 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 when it was returned to them."
Due to the low levels of DNA in the ancient hair samples, the team came up with a maximum likelihood computational approach designed to detect relatively distant family relationships using low-coverage genome sequence data — roughly 0.02-fold average coverage, in the case of the Sitting Bull genome — and contemporary genotyping data.
When they compared the Sitting Bull sequence data with array-based genotypes for LaPointe and a dozen other present-day Lakota Sioux participants, the researchers used allele frequency findings to demonstrate that LaPointe was a descendant of Sitting Bull.
Despite the available family tree, historical records, and birth certificate evidence on hand prior to the sequencing study, LaPointe explained that "over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull."
The new findings may support LaPointe's efforts to rebury Sitting Bull at a site that is significant to the leader and his family members. Sitting Bull was originally buried at Fort Yates, North Dakota. His remains are thought to have been moved to Mobridge, South Dakota, in the early 1950s, though further genetic evidence will reportedly be used to confirm that the remains found there indeed belong to the Native American leader.
The study also highlighted the potential for teasing out other genetic relationships involving important historical figures or situations in the future, the authors explained, noting that "this study opens the possibility for broadening genealogical research, even when only minor amounts of ancient genetic material are accessible."