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Friends Interview With LaPointe

December 28, 2007

Webmaster's Note: Ernie LaPointe was born in 1948 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota with his half-sister Marlene Little Spotted Horse. Their late mother Angelique LaPointe Spotted Horse was a housewife. His late father Claude LaPointe farmed in Pine Ridge and worked in a lumber yard in Rapid City.

Ernie attended the public school system in Rapid City. When he was 10 years old, his mother died of cancer. At age 17 his father died of a heart attack. He lived with his (half) Sister Marlene until he was 18 and old enough to join the military. He was stationed in Korea, Turkey, and Germany, and all over the United States. Mr. LaPointe did one tour in Vietnam in 1970-71. He received an honorable discharge from the Army in 1972.

On his Motherís side he is the Great Grandson of Sitting Bull and Seen By Her Nation Woman. Mr. LaPointe can point out a long line of chiefs on his Motherís as well as on his Fatherís side. His Grandfather, Spotted Horse was the son of Hunts Enemy and the Grandson of Chief Charging Bear. His Great Grandmotherís (Tokala Win LaPointe) brother was Chief Painted Horse.

Mr. LaPointe met his wife, Sonja, at a pow wow in Rapid City, SD; they will be married for 13 years in April 2008. Mr. LaPointe is a Sun Dancer and lives the traditional way of the Lakota and follows the rules of the sacred pipe.

This interview conducted with Mr. LaPointe on December 28, 2007 discusses events leading up to, during, and after the repatriation of Sitting Bull's lock of hair and leggings from the Smithsonian to the LaPointe family.

Bob Reece: How did the Smithsonian determine that the lock of hair and leggings would be returned to your family?

Ernie LaPointe: The Smithsonian sent their repatriation officer to my home in July 2003. He met family members and he was shown our documented family tree. The family tree is complete for all of Sitting Bull's children and descendants. The family tree ends with Sitting Bull's great grandchildren which is my generation. My sisters and I are the closest lineal descendants. 

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), all items that are found and it is known to which they belonged must be returned to the rightful descendants. Only unknown artifacts will be given to the tribe. 

B.R. What roadblocks, if any, did you overcome to ensure Smithsonian gave you the items?

E.L.: The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe wanted the items because they claim Sitting Bull, so they tried to stall the repatriation at the last minute. Everybody was aware of a deadline to respond to the Smithsonian from the day the news was published in "Indian Country Today" that I will receive the leggings and the hair (Webmaster's note: and countless other newspapers). Standing Rock's protest came after the deadline, but we gave them a chance to bring some kind of proof of anyone being related to Sitting Bull. They had another two weeks to reply, which they never did.

B.R. How did Sitting Bull's items end-up at the Smithsonian?

E.L. When Army doctor, Horace Deeble passed away in 1896 the items were given to the Smithsonian since he had no relatives. (Webmaster's Note: Dr. Deeble took possession of the items from Sitting Bull's body)

B.R. I understand there are other items that were in Sitting Bullís possession that are still at the Smithsonian. Why were those not repatriated back to your family? 

E.L. We looked at all the items people claim to belong to Sitting Bull. We only identified the 1866 Winchester rifle that was surrendered at Fort Buford and a pair of moccasins belonging to his second wife Four Robes. Both items were given away; therefore we cannot get them back.  

B.R. What do you mean, they were given away?

E.L. What I mean is the rifle and the moccasins were not taken from the family; the rifle was surrendered to the military and the moccasins were traded to someone for food when the family was held captive at the fort, so therefore the Smithsonian does not need to return these items under NAGPRA law. The rifle is not considered a cultural or religious item so it doesn't fall within the guidelines of NAGPRA either. Since the moccasins were given away, they do not fall under the NAGPRA guidelines as well.

B.R. Would you please share with us the experiences of the trip to D.C. to take possession of the items?

E.L. Sonja and I traveled by car, we left home Dec. 1 and arrived in D.C. the evening of Dec. 3. Tuesday, December 4th, we had a small private ceremony with the items. Bill Billeck (a very respectful man) director of the Smithsonianís National Museum of Natural History's Repatriation; my good friend (filmmaker and fellow Vietnam veteran Bill Matson); and Sonja's best friend Sharon Small (curator at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument) attended the ceremony. 

The rest of the day we spent behind the scenes at the museum looking close up at original ledger drawings from Sitting Bull, his uncle Four Horns, and his Hunka - brother Jumping Bull. Hunka means Making a Relative (adoption).

Wednesday December 5, the actual repatriation took place at the National Museum of Natural History on Constitution Ave. We signed papers then shook hands -- that was it. We returned home on the 8th of December.  

B.R. What was going through your mind when you walked out of the Smithsonian holding the lock of hair and leggings?

E.L. What was I thinking?  Sonja spoke for all of us; she said Grandfather is coming home with us.

B.R. What was your next course of action after returning home?

E.L. On December 15 we had a ceremony at our house with family and friends (Webmaster's Note: Sitting Bull was killed by Standing Rock Indian police on December 15, 1890). The ceremony was conducted by Marvin Helper (Medicine Man). We learned in the ceremony that we had to burn the hair and that the leggings should not go into a museum. They have been on display for 111 years and it is time to give it all a rest. I keep the leggings in a safe place, so nobody can come and steal them again. 

Before we burned the hair, we gave a small portion of it to a DNA specialist in Europe. He will perform a DNA analysis for us. From now on, whoever was told all their lives that they are related to Sitting Bull, have the chance to have a DNA test done. 

B.R. What is the condition of the items?

E.L. The hair was in wonderful condition, just like it was cut yesterday. Jet-black and shiny! It rips my heart out, thinking that he had to enter the Spirit World without the hair lock that held his eagle feathers.

The dark blue flannel leggings are stained, but in good condition. 

B.R. Youíve been very humble in announcing your willingness to reconcile with the Standing Rock people over what happened to your great grandfather in 1890. I know you, and this invitation from you for reconciliation is most sincere. Has there been any progress with your wish, have you heard from anyone at Standing Rock?

E.L. I haven't heard a thing from anybody living on the Standing Rock Reservation.

B.R. If you could, what one question would you ask Sitting Bull?

E.L. I have too much respect for my Grandfather; I would never ever ask him a single question. If he wanted me to know things, he would tell me. 

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