FARGO — Five-year-old Ernie LaPointe peered through the windows of an old Ford as men used a backhoe and shovels in the early morning darkness to dig up the grave of Sitting Bull.

His mother, Angelique Spotted Horse LaPointe, and two of her sisters stood near the exhumation on April 8, 1953, an effort promoted by businessmen from Mobridge, South Dakota.

The flash of a news camera captured an image of a mortician holding a thigh bone the diggers removed from a decaying wooden coffin at the grave of Sitting Bull in Fort Yates, North Dakota. His remains were in a canvas bag placed inside the coffin.

The mortician and other men were careful not to leave anything behind at the grave and later counted the bones, Ernie LaPointe said. “He made sure all the bones were there.”

LaPointe’s mother, who was one of Sitting Bull’s granddaughters, and other family members agreed to move the bones, unhappy with the gravesite’s run-down condition and worried that the rising waters of Lake Oahe would submerge the burial plot.

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The remains were reburied on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River across from Mobridge. To discourage another grave removal — the bones had become the subject of a bitter feud between North Dakota and South Dakota — a steel crypt containing the remains was covered by tons of concrete.

Although the family consented, the North Dakota Department of Health refused to grant a burial transit permit despite a determination from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the family’s wishes should decide where Sitting Bull should be buried.

So the Mobridge businessmen, who wanted to create a tourist attraction that would draw visitors to the area, acted in secrecy to move the grave. The unauthorized exhumation sparked anger in North Dakota.

“S.D. Ghouls Steal Sitting Bull’s Bones,” a headline in the Bismarck Tribune blared. A subheading continued, “Raiders Open Grave At Night.”

Rhett Albers, a co-owner of Sitting Bull Monument, dreams of the day when an interpretive center near the Lakota leader’s bust would tell Sitting Bull’s life story. The bust and Sitting Bull’s reputed second grave are across The Missouri River from Mobridge, S.D. Patrick Springer / The Forum
Rhett Albers, a co-owner of Sitting Bull Monument, dreams of the day when an interpretive center near the Lakota leader’s bust would tell Sitting Bull’s life story. The bust and Sitting Bull’s reputed second grave are across The Missouri River from Mobridge, S.D. Patrick Springer / The Forum

Soon after the concrete cover poured over the new grave dried, a controversy erupted over whether the bones the men dug up and reburied actually belonged to Sitting Bull.

That controversy, involving both Native Americans and non-Natives, including factions among the Lakotas, continues to this day.

Ernie LaPoint hopes the evidence now available will prove once and for all where Sitting Bull is buried — and enable the family to move his remains to a location of their choosing buried with the traditional Lakota ceremony that never was granted.

The key to resolving the bones controversy involves DNA from a purloined lock of hair.

* * *

Sitting Bull as photographed by David F. Barry, circa 1885.
Contributed / Library of Congress photo
Sitting Bull as photographed by David F. Barry, circa 1885. Contributed / Library of Congress photo

A cortege of wagons brought Sitting Bull’s body to Fort Yates after he was shot and killed by Indian police on Dec. 29, 1890, at his cabin along the Grand River on Standing Rock.

Sitting Bull’s arrest was ordered because he was under suspicion during the turmoil of the Ghost Dance religion, which for believers would bring a return of buffalo and other game and a reunion with their departed ancestors.

Acting without permission, the post surgeon at Fort Yates cut a braid lock from the back of Sitting Bull’s head. He also took a pair of cloth leggings to keep as a souvenir. In 1896, he loaned the items to the Smithsonian Institution.

Sitting Bull’s hair was stored in a glass box for decades and forgotten. Records for loaned items during that era weren’t kept as methodically as artifacts belonging to the Smithsonian.

The discovery of Sitting Bull's hair and leggings came by chance after a British anthropologist ran across a reference to them.

Sitting Bull’s scalp lock was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and later returned to Sitting Bull's descendants in 2007. 
Contributed / Smithsonian Institution
Sitting Bull’s scalp lock was donated to the Smithsonian Institution and later returned to Sitting Bull's descendants in 2007. Contributed / Smithsonian Institution

That triggered a search for Sitting Bull’s descendants and a law requiring repatriation of Native American artifacts and remains — a search that ultimately led to Ernie LaPointe, who now is 73 and lives in Lead, South Dakota.

After an exhaustive review of documents and other information that took years, the Smithsonian concluded that LaPointe is Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, as his mother and uncles told him years earlier.

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Using novel DNA analysis techniques, a team of researchers in October published findings confirming LaPointe is Sitting Bull’s grandson — evidence LaPointe hopes can be used to confirm that the bones at the reburial site belonged to Sitting Bull.

When the time is right, LaPointe plans to ask South Dakota officials to grant a permit to allow an exhumation of the bones for DNA analysis.

“This might be the next step for us,” he told The Forum. If the bones are confirmed to be Sitting Bull’s, the family then will seek to rebury the remains in an appropriate place and manner, he said.

“We haven’t determined where we’ll take them, but it sure as heck won’t be Standing Rock,” LaPointe said.

* * *

Sitting Bull, seen here in an 1884 photo, is now known as a champion of his people. 
Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota A2250-1
Sitting Bull, seen here in an 1884 photo, is now known as a champion of his people. Photo courtesy of the State Historical Society of North Dakota A2250-1

Sitting Bull’s descendants have long resented his betrayal at Standing Rock and his death at the hands of Indian police.

After Sitting Bull’s death, 250 to 300 traditionalist followers of Sitting Bull, including LaPointe’s ancestors, fled Standing Rock and moved to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where LaPointe is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

“Pine Ridge is like a big refugee camp,” he said.

LaPointe’s mother didn’t support Sitting Bull’s reburial at Standing Rock across from Mobridge but went along with other family members, LaPointe said. In March 1953, before the grave was moved, the Rapid City Journal quoted his mother as preferring a site near Rapid City, South Dakota, in the Black Hills.

“Sitting Bull loved the Black Hills and it is no more than right that he should be buried there,” she said.

Resentment against Sitting Bull and his descendants continues at Standing Rock, LaPointe said. There is lingering bitterness among descendants of the Indian police officers involved in Sitting Bull’s fatal arrest and their supporters, he said.

Despite those hard feelings, LaPointe tried in 1996 to become an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, where his family would have been members if they hadn’t left for Pine Ridge.

Ernie LaPoint of Lead, South Dakota, grew up hearing stories from his mother and uncles that he is Sitting Bull's great-grandson — a lineage now proved from genetic analysis of a sample taken from a lock of Sitting Bull's hair that had been in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution.  
Contributed / Shane Balkowitsch
Ernie LaPoint of Lead, South Dakota, grew up hearing stories from his mother and uncles that he is Sitting Bull's great-grandson — a lineage now proved from genetic analysis of a sample taken from a lock of Sitting Bull's hair that had been in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Contributed / Shane Balkowitsch

The enrollment officer insulted Sitting Bull, LaPointe said, calling him a “lowly medicine man” as well as a “drunkard and a wife beater.”

LaPointe said he wanted to punch the man, but he refrained. A man accompanying him responded, “Are we going to relive 1890 again?”

Afterward, “I drove over to my grandfather’s grave, and I apologized,” LaPoint said. “This is an ongoing thing.”

It would be welcome if Standing Rock residents conducted a healing ceremony so the bitter feelings can be put aside, he said.

Many of the Indian police were Dakota relatives who fled Minnesota after the Sioux Uprising in 1862 and were taken in by Sitting Bull, LaPointe said.

“It’s a sad, sad story,” he said. “This DNA would give me an opportunity to wash my hands of these people,” providing the information that would enable him to move the remains.

In the early 2000s, when there was a proposal to build a gift shop and cultural center at Sitting Bull’s reburial site, the family objected. At the time, LaPointe was exploring the possibility of moving the bones to the Little Bighorn Battlefield site in Montana. Sitting Bull was the leader of an alliance of warriors that defeated Lt. Col. George Custer at the Little Bighorn in 1876.

Now that the proposed cultural center has been rejected, LaPointe said he would like to see Sitting Bull reburied in a place that is sacred to the Lakotas, such as the Black Hills, as his mother preferred.

A reburial would provide the opportunity to redress an old wrong, and the DNA from the lock of Sitting Bull’s hair could make it happen.

“This kind of opened the door for me to think about,” LaPointe said. “He never got the respect of a Lakota burial ceremony to make his energy travel to the spirit world.”