Science

Lock of Sitting Bull’s hair confirms great-grandson’s identity

Lakota Sioux Chief Tatanka Iyotake, known to the English-speaking world as Sitting Bull, spent decades fighting white settlers’ attempts to push the Sioux off their lands in the Western United States. After defeating U.S. Lt. Col. George Custer’s army at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876, he became a synonym for Indigenous resistance.

Now, researchers have used badly fragmented DNA from Sitting Bull’s scalp lock—a short braid kept for ceremonial purposes—to confirm that a Sioux man from South Dakota is the storied chief’s great-grandson. But the work, more than 10 years in the making, has raised questions among scientists who worry about how Indigenous data are used in research. “It’s cool from a forensic point of view,” says Keolu Fox, a Kānaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian, geneticist at the University of California (UC), San Diego, who was not involved in the research. “But the real question is, would Sitting Bull have been comfortable with this?”

The chief’s great-grandson, Ernie LaPointe, says yes. After Sitting Bull was shot and killed in 1890 on what is now the Standing Rock Reservation, an Army doctor took the chief’s leggings and scalp lock without permission. The Smithsonian Institution kept them for more than 100 years. When the institution finally returned them to LaPointe in 2007, University of Cambridge paleogeneticist Eske Willerslev reached out to see whether he could use a sample of the hair for genetic sequencing. “I told him, ‘I can’t give you that permission—it’s not my hair. You have to ask my great-grandfather,’” LaPointe says.

In a December 2007 ceremony in the basement of his home in the Black Hills of South Dakota, LaPointe called on Sitting Bull’s spirit for guidance, as Willerslev listened in the darkened space. “My grandfather chuckled and said he would allow Eske to take an inch,” LaPointe recalls. “But only an inch. The rest, he said, we had to burn.”

That inch, or about 3 centimeters, was enough—barely. In a paper published today in Science Advances, Willerslev and his colleagues were able to show the scalp lock belonged to LaPointe’s great-grandfather. That adds to genealogical evidence, birth and death certificates, and historical documents that support LaPointe’s claim to be Sitting Bull’s closest living descendant.

Reaching that conclusion wasn’t easy. Even the hair’s healthy, bright sheen was deceptive. In reality, it was covered in toxic chemicals: Nineteenth century curators had doused the braid in arsenic to preserve it, further degrading its DNA. Researchers managed to recover less than 1% of Sitting Bull’s genome from the sample, giving them just a few thousand identifiable chunks of DNA that they could compare to LaPointe’s.

Because Sitting Bull only had daughters, researchers couldn’t trace the lock’s lineage using mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mother to daughter, or Y-chromosome DNA, which follows the male line. “We had to go nuclear,” Willerslev says. When the researchers compared DNA from the hair to that of LaPointe and 14 other Sioux individuals, including two of his sisters, they found more of the recovered genes were exact matches for LaPointe’s than for any of the others. “The result fits beautifully with what’s expected of the great-grandchild of the hair,” Willerslev says.

For LaPointe, a co-author on the paper, the results are a satisfying piece of evidence after more than 10 years of waiting. He hopes the additional proof will convince South Dakota authorities to let him and his relatives exhume Sitting Bull’s body for reburial.

But Fox says that, although the ancestry analysis holds up, Sioux tribal authorities, including those on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, should have also helped decide whether to go forward with the project. U.S. laws allow direct descendants like LaPointe to give permission for research on human remains regardless of whether the larger community or tribe approves. But tribes point out that one person’s DNA can reveal things about the larger tribe that could be misused.

Willerslev’s group didn’t notify reservation authorities about the project until 2020, when they sent an email and never got a reply. They also never sought the tribe’s permission to destroy the hair in the first place. “We’re living in the Wild West era of big data,” says Joseph Yracheta, a doctor in public health candidate at Johns Hopkins University who is affiliated with the P’urhépecha and Rarámurì tribes in Mexico. “There are a lot of gaps in the law that tribes haven’t thought about yet, including this individual versus community consent issue.”

The precedent the research sets troubles UC Los Angeles bioethicist Nanibaa’ Garrison, a member of the Diné, or Navajo, tribe who says more effort should have been made to reach a community consensus. “Sometimes it’s hard to determine who the appropriate community is,” Garrison says. “The default is just not to proceed until the community shows support.”

The potential controversy was considered when reviewing the paper prior to publication, according to Mark Aldenderfer, an editor with Science Advances. “I believe we did our due diligence for evaluating potential concerns,” he says. “We asked our reviewers, ‘Is this good and sufficient?’ And they said yes.” Aldenderfer added that Sitting Bull’s DNA will not be deposited in a scientific database, as is usual for published genomic studies, because of Indigenous peoples’ concerns. Willerslev adds that only LaPointe knows the identity of the nonfamilial DNA donors, and his lab won’t use that information for any larger genetics studies.

But Fox fears the new work may further roil the already fraught relationship between ancient DNA researchers and Indigenous communities. “The unintended consequences and ripple effects of this are going to be controversial,” he says.

Willerslev says his views, too, have evolved in the past decade. Almost 15 years after the ceremony in LaPointe’s South Dakota basement, Willerslev says he’s not sure he would go through with the research again. “Is it the tribe, or the family, which has the right to decide? We’re doing something good for Ernie’s family, but will other people be hurt?” he asks. “I would have been much more troubled going into the study today.”

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