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A man claimed he was related to Sitting Bull. Now, DNA proves he's his great-grandson.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/28/2021 Asha C. Gilbert, USA TODAY
Rowe's beadwork of Sitting Bull. © Shelby Rowe Rowe's beadwork of Sitting Bull.

DNA from the scalp lock of Sitting Bull was able to confirm a man's claims that he was indeed the great-grandson of the Native American leader and his closest living relative.

For years people questioned if Ernie LaPointe  was a relative of the Lakota Sioux leader, despite having birth and death certificates, a family tree and historical records, according to a press release.

 A new DNA technique using autosomal DNA can finally quiet the naysayers, marking the first time ancient DNA was used to confirm familial relationships in living people.

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Unlike mitochondria DNA that is passed down from a mother to her children, autosomal DNA is inherited from both parents, making it possible to check genetic matches regardless if an ancestor is from the father or mother's side of the family, according to the press release.  

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The hair from the Native American chief had become extremely degraded after sitting in Washington’s Smithsonian Museum for over a century before it was returned to LaPointe and his siblings in 2007.

According to a study published in Science Advances, LaPointe and his siblings burned most of the hair lock in a spiritual ceremony but a tiny piece was saved for future analysis. 

“I 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,” Eske Willerslev, study author and professor at the University of Cambridge's department of zoology, said in the release. 

It took researchers 14 years to find a usable piece.

With the new DNA evidence, LaPointe now hopes to bury his great-grandfather in a more appropriate location. He believes Sitting Bull's bones are in Mobridge, South Dakota, a location with no significant ties to the leader.

Sitting Bull, also known as Tatanka-Iyotanka, was a legendary tribal chief best known for the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 where he led 1,500 Lakota warriors to victory over U.S. Army Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

Researchers hope the new DNA technique will open more doors to testing ancient DNA.

“In principle, you could investigate whoever you want – from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs. If there is access to old DNA – typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way,” Willerslev said in the press release.

Follow reporter Asha Gilbert @Coastalasha. Email: agilbert@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: A man claimed he was related to Sitting Bull. Now, DNA proves he's his great-grandson.

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