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Sitting Bull descendant fights cultural fraud
JUNE 20, 2000

When it comes to fighting frauds in Indian Country, no one understands the difficulties better than Ernie LaPointe.

As the great-grandson(*) of Hunkpapa leader Sitting Bull, he and other members of his family have come across hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of misrepresentation of the great Lakota leader.

"People every day claim to be related to Sitting Bull or say they have items that once belonged to him," says LaPointe. "99 percent of the claims turn out to be bogus."

In order to address the growing amount of claims, LaPointe and other family members spent several years documenting Sitting Bull's family tree. With Tim Mentz, historic preservation officer of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, acting as their primary contact, the family has dealt with museums, private collectors, and other institutions who possess items that might have belonged to their ancestor.

One recent item which came across their radar involved the Internet auction site eBay. A seller in Alaska offered an "Original Sundance Buffalo Skull" on the site in early June.

"According to historic documents this skull was left at the site of the original Sundance along with other gifts on the alter [sic] of the sacred Sundance pole. It was later picked up and transported from the site to Alaska 28 years ago by an old man from the Dakotas," wrote the seller.

Opening price: $750,000.00.

To LaPointe, the item was another in a long line of sales he has fought over the years. But its availability on the Internet poses new problems for LaPointe, who doesn't own a computer.

"I'm not on the Internet so I don't have the way to get on," said LaPointe earlier this month, upon learning of the item. "If it is real, it should be returned to the tribe or the family."

But verifying the authenticity of an item offered on the Internet can be nearly impossible. Unlike artifacts housed by museums or owned by collectors, LaPointe or other family members have no immediate way of viewing the item in order to verify authenticity.

Adding to the difficulty was the lack of a photo of the item. As he has done in the past, LaPointe would have had to physically track down the seller, who in this instance was identified only by an email address and a geographic location.

eBay themselves have come across similar problems and not just with Indian artifacts. A high profile auction in May was forced to be canceled when the authenticity of a painting could not be verified.

In order to determine whether the sale of an item such as the Sundance skull would be breaking any laws, the site works with the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The site also outlaws the listing of human remains, burial items, masks, and prayer sticks.

But as soon as the Sundance skull went up for sale, it came down. Originally set to close on June 13, the auction ended on June 9, three days after the initial offering.

When contacted about on the auction and the skull, the seller could not offer any comment. "My lawyer is handling this right now," responded

The news of the suspended sale was welcomed by LaPointe. But he remained cautious, believing the item might be offered for sale yet again, just not on the Internet.

Having inherited from his mother the battle to defend his family's cultural heritage, LaPointe has strong opinions on the sale of the skull or other property of Sitting Bull.

"I don't believe it's right. These sellers have no idea what is sacred," says LaPointe. "To me, these are things you don't sell. I don't care how hard up for money you are, you don't sell them."

* - Correction. LaPointe is Sitting Bull's great- grandson, not great-great-grandson as erroneously reported. July 5, 2000.

View an archived copy of the Item:
Original Sundance Buffalo Skull (Item #351824381)

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Related Stories:
Fighting forgeries in Indian Country (Arts and Entertainment 5/18)
Culture for Sale (The Talking Circle 5/23)