Cheyenne River Sioux tribal member Elsie DuBray, 17, first attended a special event at the Cheyenne River Youth Project in Eagle Butte when she was a third-grader. She thought it was so cool, she has volunteered with CRYP nearly every year since then, for the nonprofit youth organization’s long-running Christmas Toy Drive and Passion for Fashion programs.
Nine years later, both are still going strong, serving young people in the local community. And DuBray, a lifelong Cheyenne River resident and senior at Timber Lake High School, has announced that she has been accepted to California’s Stanford University.
“We couldn’t be more proud of Elsie,” said Julie Garreau, CRYP’s executive director. “We’ve watched her grow into an accomplished, intelligent, generous and kind young woman, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.”
That future seems very bright indeed. DuBray plans to earn a degree in biochemistry, with a minor in American Indian studies. These fit together in an important way; for the last couple of years, the teen has been pursuing groundbreaking research involving the health benefits of buffalo fat.
Her science journey started when she was a sophomore in high school. As a participant in the High Plains Regional Science & Engineering Fair at the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City, she took third place in her category, which allowed her to attend the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix as an observer.
“That was the spark,” DuBray remembered. “It was when I realized what I want to do for the rest of my life. It can be hard in a small community to find peers with similar interests; at the fair, I made friends from all over the world and was so inspired by all the brilliant young minds. I’d finally found my people!”
She promised herself she’d come back one day as a finalist. She set her sights on winning the regional fair the next year and securing a spot in the ISEF competition in Los Angeles. As she considered possible projects in July 2016, she attended a green chemistry camp at the South Dakota School of Mines, where she met Dr. Tsvetanka Filipova, a professor in chemistry and applied biological sciences.
“We talked about ideas, and she agreed to mentor me,” DuBray said. “That was a huge deal, the resources that would be available to me.”
At that point, DuBray landed on the idea that would light a lasting fire.
“My family raises buffalo on a Cheyenne River ranch, and they’re really important culturally as well as in terms of health,” DuBray said. “I decided I wanted to study the health benefits of buffalo fat; it really hadn’t been done before, and I found it both exciting and intriguing. Plus, I’d have the opportunity to eventually publish my research with my mentor.”
In her research, DuBray analyzed the lipid content of grain-fed versus grass-fed buffalo and beef. She was looking for a correlation with both heart disease and Indian Country’s diabetes epidemic so that, at some point, she also could search for solutions.
By January 2017, she was developing her methodology and research plan, and the following month, she began experimentation.
“My high school chemistry teacher drove me four hours to the School of Mines, where I’d spend the weekend,” DuBray said. “I’d be in the lab every day, 13 hours a day. Then I had to get back to Cheyenne River to go to high school during the week.”
Following experimentation, her next step was to quantify the results—to see how the good fat compared to both grain- and grass-fed beef. From there, she sought to determine the effects on human blood and overall health, which expanded her journey of discovery.
“Originally, I was looking at the triglyceride levels and which meat has more,” DuBray said. “That was my main focus. I hadn’t considered healthy fats, like Omega-3s. Now, I’m looking at all possibilities. Instead of taking Omega-3 supplements, how would healthier meat affect the levels in our bodies?
“I have a few years of work ahead of me,” she continued. “Every time I look for one thing, it opens four more doors. There are so many opportunities, and I want to look for answers to all these problems.”
DuBray achieved her goal of returning to Intel-ISEF as a finalist. In April 2017, she won the High Plains Regional Science and Engineering Fair, and then in May, she earned a third place at ISEF in the biochemistry category for “Buffalo vs. Beef: Analyzing Lipid Components in Search of Potential Health Benefits.”
Since then, she also has won the High School Poster Research category at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Research Presentation Competition, and she presented her research to the Intertribal Agriculture Council (IAC) membership meeting. Now, her sights are set on Stanford.
When DuBray arrives in California this fall as a college freshman, she will be pursuing her education with a very specific research focus—and with high hopes for her chosen degree programs.
“A lot of good things will come out of this,” she said. “In our rich, beautiful indigenous cultures, we have so many traditional medicines from plants and berries—and not just in North America. This is true all over the world. There are endless studies, things I can look into, in my lifetime. I want to explore what traditional knowledge has to teach us.”
To stay up to date on the latest CRYP news and events, follow the youth project on Facebook (/LakotaYouth), Twitter (@LakotaYouth) and Instagram (@waniyetuwowapi).
The Cheyenne River Youth Project, founded in 1988, is a grassroots, not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing the youth of the Cheyenne River reservation with access to a vibrant and secure future through a wide variety of culturally sensitive and enduring programs, projects and facilities that ensure strong, self-sufficient families and communities.