Smithsonian traces Sitting Bull’s descendants

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By Sara Kincaid
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP)

Ernie LaPointe points to a depiction of famed chief Sitting Bull and some of his descendants at LaPointe's home in Lead, S.D.
AP Photo by Erin McClain

When Sitting Bull’s name passes the lips of Ernie LaPointe, the words great-grandfather follow.

For many people, Sitting Bull is a famed Indian spiritual leader. His name is said in the same breath as George Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn. But the man depicted in movies and books is different from the man LaPointe’s mother told him about as a child.

“I kept quiet about this,” he said. “It was my mother’s wish not to brag about it.”

His mother is Angeline LaPointe, who is the daughter of Sitting Bull’s youngest daughter, Standing Holy.

Sitting Bull’s family tree has many branches. He had four wives and adopted his sister’s son. The family of his fourth wife and his adopted son make equal claim to Sitting Bull’s heritage.

The Smithsonian Institution decided this fall that the LaPointes are the only direct descendants when repatriating a pair of leggings and a lock of hair taken from Sitting Bull. While it seems to be an easy decision for the Smithsonian, based on blood relation, it is not such a clear distinction on the reservation.

The items came to the Smithsonian through an Army doctor, who loaned them to the museum.

In 1890, Sitting Bull was living on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation and interested in the Ghost Dance movement. The Ghost Dance was meant to rid the world of white people. Sitting Bull was killed when resisting arrest by reservation police.

“I suspect Sitting Bull is the most, or best-known individual in the United States or abroad,” said Bill Billeck, Smithsonian repatriation program manager and case manager for the Plains.

Smithsonian Institution Started Looking in 1999
The Smithsonian Institution started looking for direct descendants of Sitting Bull in 1999. Billeck’s office notified all the Sioux tribes, trying to find a relative. Lineal descendants, who can be traced by blood lines, have first right to the objects, Billeck said.

Billeck heard of LaPointe, who lives in western South Dakota, and visited him. LaPointe shared his mother’s stories, as well as a documented family tree. Billeck told him about the lock of hair and a pair of leggings. They were the leggings he wore when he was killed and the braid from where he wore his feather.

The repatriation process on the items started in 2003. It involved verifying LaPointe’s relationship to Sitting Bull. The Smithsonian also notified the Sioux tribes about the artifacts and how they were acquired.

While Billeck researched the LaPointe connection to Sitting Bull, the LaPointes wanted to know if the items were really their great-grandfather’s. They went to Washington, D.C., to see the items, and performed a ceremony for them.

Seeing the items in person was like lifting a veil to the past and understanding a great truth.

“It is really touching,” LaPointe said. “You realize a lot of things. It’s part of history ... If it wasn’t for him, I’d not be talking to you. It is a humbling experience.”

The Smithsonian study found that LaPointe, his siblings, his children and grandchildren are the only known lineal descendants of Sitting Bull. People had 30 days to respond to the Smithsonian’s findings and make claims on the items. The LaPointes will be given the items the first week of December, according to the Smithsonian.

“Yes, they should (recognize it), because the ceremony is sacred,” said Isaac Dog Eagle, great-grandson of One Bull, about the Smithsonian’s’ ruling on descendants.

One Bull is known as Sitting Bull’s adopted son and his nephew. Cecilia One Bull, who was One Bull’s daughter, told Isaac Dog Eagle about his great-great-grandfather, Sitting Bull. Dog Eagle tells his own children about Sitting Bull, just as his grandmother once told him. Dog Eagle’s relationship to Sitting Bull is no different from any other relative, he said. He sees a different man than the one whom people make grand statements about.

“It is just people trying to make something of his life,” Dog Eagle said “He did a lot of good things for his people.”

He knows the circumstances of the relationship between Sitting Bull and one Bull was unique, because One Bull was adopted at the age of 3 or 4, in a ceremony, Dog Eagle said. It made One Bull as much Sitting Bull’s child as his other children.

Another member of the Standing Rock Tribe claims Sitting Bull in his family tree. Tribal Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder is a great-great-great grandson of Sitting Bull through his mother, Ina McNeil. She is the daughter of Annie Broughtplenty, who is the daughter of Cecilia One Bull. His Horse Is Thunder did not return numerous phone calls and messages seeking his comment.

Ernie LaPointe is the son of Angeline LaPointe, who is the daughter of Standing Holy, who is the daughter of Sitting Bull and Seen by the Nation.

The adoption ceremony gives One Bull equal standing with blood relatives in Sitting Bull’s family, Dog Eagle said. The Smithsonian, however, only wants the closest relative. For example, there are four generations between Sitting Bull and His Horse Is Thunder, three generations between Sitting Bull and Dog Eagle, and two generations between Sitting Bull and LaPointe, which makes him the closest relative of the three Sitting Bull descendants. LaPointe matches the Smithsonian’s requirements to be the closest bloodline relative.

The return of the items will allow LaPointe to bury the piece of hair with Sitting Bull, “because it is his.” The leggings could be buried with him or displayed in a museum.

LaPointe has been asked many times how he wants people to remember Sitting Bull. He said he asked the spirit.

“I got this answer. My great-grandfather was wrote about as a chief or medicine man, but remember him as a sun dancer,” LaPointe said. “If you know the significance, (the sun dance) is the most ultimate gift to give to your nation of people. The suffering is not for you, but for your people, so the future generation can live and the elderly can live another year and for the sick to get better.”

The sun dance is a four-day ceremony and the dancer does not eat or drink during that time, said LaPointe, who also is a sun dancer.

His great-grandfather had visions from ceremonies that foretold of battles and his death.

“People said he was fighting a losing cause, but he still cared and stood up for them,” LaPointe said.

He wants to move his great-grandfather’s burial site to the place of his greatest vision: the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Sitting Bull gathered several American Indian nations at the valley of Little Big Horn to fight against the 7th Cavalry, led by Lt. Col. George Custer, who died at that battle.

Moving him is contentious, with the Standing Rock tribe protesting it. Plans are under way to recognize Sitting Bull at two burial sites, one in Mobridge, S.D., and the other in Fort Yates.

By next summer, if LaPointe has his way, Sitting Bull’s grave will be in Montana, in the little Big Horn battlefield.