Chief Sioux Tatanka-Iyotake, better known as Sitting Bull, made history. Because in 1876 he led his people against soldiers around General Custer and defeated them at the legendary Battle of the Little Big Horn. Now, for the first time, scientists have succeeded in isolating parts of the Sitting Bull genome from a tuft of hair they kept and using this DNA to prove that Sioux Indian Ernie Lapointe is in fact the president’s grandson. This now gives him the right to decide on and secure Tatanka-Iyotake’s final resting place.
Sitting Bull, born in 1831, is one of the most famous Native American warlords. The leader and medicine man of Hunkpapa Lakota-Sioux was one of the driving forces behind the resistance that Sioux opposed to the invasion and displacement of Europeans in the form of the American army. He played a special role as one of the warlords who led the united tribes of the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe in battle against the American army led by General George Custer in 1876. At the Battle of the Little Big Horn, the Indians succeeded in defeating the American soldiers and killing Custer. This battle is considered the Indians’ greatest victory in the struggle for their land and freedom – which they nevertheless eventually lost. The Sitting Bull lived with his tribe at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota after the final victory of the Whites, where he was mysteriously killed in 1890.
A lock of the hair of a sitting bull
Shortly before the bones of Sioux’s chief were buried, the coroner cut off the dead Sitting Bull’s scalp lock – a tuft of hair from the top of the head to which Sioux usually attached a feather – and stole the chief’s leggings. Later both were on loan to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. It was only in 2007 that these two antiquities were handed over to Sioux and in particular to Ernie Lapointe and his sisters. According to birth certificates, family trees, and historical documents, they are the great-grandchildren of a Sioux leader. “But over the years, a lot of people have tried to question the relationship between me, my sisters and Sitting Bull,” explains Lapointe. This became a problem mainly because he had previously been denied any say at the two so-called Sitting Bull burial sites.
This is where well-known DNA researcher Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge comes in. He and his team specialize in isolating genetic material from even very old bones and other artifacts and inferring original or family relationships from them. “The sitting bull has been my hero since I was a boy,” Willerslev says. “That’s why I almost choked on my coffee when I read in a magazine in 2007 that the Smithsonian wanted to return the Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe.” The researcher wrote to Lapointe, explaining that he was getting old in specialized DNA analysis and asking if he should try extracting DNA from a Sitting Bull’s tuft of hair to prove it was related. La Pointe agreed, and Willerslev, first author Ida Moltke of the University of Copenhagen, and her colleagues attended the work.
Success despite extremely low DNA production
However, it turned out to be very difficult to isolate enough genetic material from hair, the team reported. This is because the scalp lock has been stored at room temperature for over a century and may have been treated with arsenic to preserve it. As a result, the material was severely degraded and the team was only able to extract and sequence very few small DNA fragments. In addition, the simpler comparison usually using the genetic code for the Y chromosome was out of the question because Labuante descended from the Sitting Bull through his mother and the Y chromosome is only passed through the male line. Mitochondrial DNA, which is found in the “power plants of the cell” and is often better preserved, is only passed down from mothers to daughters, and therefore does not function in Labuante. So the scientists had to refer to natural DNA and use special computer-aided methods to be able to compare the few DNA fragments with the genetic makeup of Labuante, its sisters, and, for control purposes, other Sioux.
But it worked: “We were able to get enough chromosomal DNA from a Sitting Bull hair sample and compare it — and with our matching enthusiasm,” Willerslev reports. It has now been genetically proven that La Pointe and his sisters are the descendants of the famous Sioux chief Sitting Bull. According to US law, they also have the authority to dispose of the president’s remains. Lapointe would like to use this to transport the bones of Mobridge, a place not in the heart of the Sioux region, and bring them to a place more connected to his tribe’s culture. For Willerslev and colleagues, the isolation of DNA from such a severely degraded sample and the technology developed for comparisons, on the other hand, represent a critical step forward in the investigation of ancient DNA. Because the new approach enables the identification of distant family relationships with very little DNA. Willerslev explains: “In principle, one can also examine completely different relationships – from Jesse James to the family of the last Russian tsar.”
Source: first author Ida Moltke (University of Copenhagen) et al., Science Advances, doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abh2013
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