Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake, known as the legendary Lakota warrior and leader, Sitting Bull, was born about 1831 and was killed in 1890. You’ll probably remember him for his victory over Custer and his troops in 1876 at the Battle of Little Big Horn, known as the Battle of Greasy Grass to the Native people and as Custer’s Last Stand colloquially.
Pictured here, Sitting Bull was photographed in 1881.
After Sitting Bull’s murder, his scalp lock, a braided length of hair used to hold his feather in place was cut from his body as a souvenir of the grizzly event. In 1896, the scalp lock along with his leggings were donated to and held by the Smithsonian Museum for more than a century before being returned to his family in 2007. Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe, now in his 70s, along with his three sisters are Sitting Bull’s closest living relatives.
The family needed to unquestionably prove a familial connection to be allowed to make decisions about Sitting Bull’s gravesite and remains. Genetic analysis was employed to augment traditional genealogical records. According to Ernie, “over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull.”
After the return of Sitting Bull’s scalp lock to Ernie LaPointe, Professor Eske Willerslev, one of the pioneers in ancient DNA, contacted Ernie and offered to assist the family by analyzing the hair sample.
Original text from the back of the above image:
“4 generations of Sitting Bull: Sitting Bull, two wives, their daughter, her daughter, her baby” “Copy from Mrs. Edward M. Johnson collection Spiritwood, N. Dak.” Sitting Bull and family 1882 at Ft Randall rear L-R Good Feather Woman (sister), Walks Looking (daughter) front L-R Her Holy Door (mother), Sitting Bull, Many Horses (daughter) with her son, Courting a Woman
LaPointe and his sisters descend from Sitting Bull through their mother, through one of Sitting Bull’s three daughters, so neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA were options to prove that they were the great-grandchildren of Sitting Bull. Generally, neither Y nor mitochondrial DNA establish exact recent relationships, but confirm or disprove lineage relationships.
DNA From Sitting Bull’s Hair
In 2007, obtaining autosomal DNA from hair was virtually impossible, even from contemporary hair, let alone hair that’s more than a century old. However, today, the technology involved has improved. Additionally, it’s also possible that some of the DNA from Sitting Bull’s skin or skin flakes were held within the scalp lock itself.
The fact that the hair had been treated with arsenic for preservation while in the possession of the Smithsonian made DNA analysis even more difficult. Unlike traditional contemporary DNA tests, a full autosomal sequence was not able to be obtained. Small fragments of autosomal DNA from the braid were able to be pieced together well enough to compare to Ernie LaPointe and other Lakota people, showing that Ernie and his family match Sitting Bull’s hair more closely than other Lakota.
The academic paper published by Willerslev, with other researchers and authors including LaPointe provides the following abstract:
Only a small portion of the braid was utilized for the analysis. The rest was burned in a spiritual ceremony. You can read the scientific paper, here.
This analysis of Sitting Bull’s hair opens the door for the remains in the two potential burial sites to be evaluated to see if they match the DNA retrieved from the scalp lock – enabling the family to rebury Sitting Bull in a location of their choice.
Establishing a Relationship
Sitting Bull’s DNA is considered ancient DNA because it’s not contemporary, and it was degraded. But the definition of ancient needs to be put in context.
Sitting Bull’s “ancient DNA” is not the same thing as “ancient DNA” from thousands of years ago. In part, because we know positively that the DNA from thousands of years ago will not match anyone genealogically today – although it may match people at a population level (or by chance) with small fragments of DNA. We know the identity of Sitting Bull, who, on the other hand, would be expected to match close family members and other more distantly related members of the tribe.
Ernie and his sisters are great-grandchildren of Sitting Bull, so they would be expected to share about 887 cM of DNA in total, ranging from 485 cM to 1486 cM.
In an endogamous population, one could be expected to share even more total DNA, but that additional DNA would likely be in smaller fragments, not contiguous segments.
For example, two great-grandchildren match their great-grandmother on 902 cM and 751 cM of DNA, respectively, with a longest contiguous block of 130 cM and 72 cM.
Another pair matches a great-grandfather at 1051 cM and 970 cM, with longest blocks of 220 cM and 141 cM.
A person would be expected to share about 12.5% of their autosomal DNA with a given great-grandparent. I wrote about how much we can expect to inherit, on average, from any ancestor, here.
In terms of the types of DNA matches that we are used to for genealogy, a great-grandparent would be one of our closest matches. Other relationships that could share about the same amount of DNA include a great-aunt/uncle/niece or nephew, a half-aunt/uncle/niece or nephew, a first cousin, half first cousin, first cousin once removed, or a great-grandchild.
Since Sitting Bull’s DNA was extracted from hair, and we know unquestionably where that hair had been since 1896 when it was donated to the Smithsonian, we can eliminate some of those relationships. Furthermore, the genetic analysis supports the genealogical records.
What About Hair, DNA, and Your Genealogy?
I’m sure you’re wondering how this applies to you and your genealogy.
Like so many other people, I have a hair WITH a follicle belonging to my father and letters written by my paternal grandfather in envelopes that I hope he licked to seal. I tried several years ago, at different times, unsuccessfully. to have both of their DNA extracted to use for genealogy. Not only were the endeavors unsuccessful, but those attempts were also VERY expensive.
IT’S NOT SOUP YET!
I know how desperately we want to utilize those items for our genealogy, but the technology still is not ripe yet. Not then and not now. At least, not for regular consumers.
Remember that this extraction took a very specialized ancient DNA lab and many highly skilled individuals. It also took a total of 14 years. The DNA obtained was highly fragmented and had to be reassembled, with lots of pieces still missing. Then it had to be compared to currently living individuals. The ancient DNA autosomal file, like other autosomal forensic files, would NOT pass quality control at any of the DNA processing companies today, where the required QA pass rate is in the ballpark of 98%.
This type of ancient DNA extraction has only been successfully done using autosomal DNA once before, in 2015 on the remains of someone who died in 1916. While Y and mitochondrial DNA has been used to rule out, or *not* rule out direct patrilineal or matrilineal relationships in other burials, highly degraded autosomal DNA is much more difficult to utilize to establish relationships. The relationships must be close in nature so that enough of the genome can be reconstructed to infer a close familial relationship
I realize that more than one company has entered this space over the past several years, and you might also notice that they have either exited said space or are have not achieved any measure of reproducible success. Do NOT chance a valuable irreplaceable sample to any company just yet. This type of processing is not a standard offering – but ongoing research opens the door for more improvement in the future. I still have my fingers crossed.
If you are interested in preserving your items, such as hair, teeth, hairbrushes, electric razors, etc. for future analysis, be sure to keep them in paper, preferably acid-free (archival) paper, NOT plastic, and in a relatively temperature-controlled environment. By that, I mean NOT in the attic and NOT in a humid basement. Someplace in the house, comfortable for regular humans, and not sealed in a ziplock baggie. Don’t touch or handle them either.
Test Older Relatives NOW!
If you can test your oldest relatives, do it now. Grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts/uncles. All of your oldest family members. Don’t wait.
FamilyTreeDNA performs the test you order and is the only DNA testing company that archives the DNA sample for 25 years. The remaining DNA is available to order upgrades or new products as technology advances.
That’s exactly how and why some younger people have great-grandparent DNA available for matching today, even if their great-grandparents have walked on to the other side and joined Sitting Bull.
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