student proves traditional chokecherry pudding is medicine
"Sky" Pete at the International Science Fair in Los Angeles.
(photo courtesy Barbara Pete)
The indigenously treasured chokecherry tree spans the North
American continent, from British Columbia to Newfoundland, and down
into the northern half of the United States. The vitamin and mineral-rich
fruit of the tree has been a staple among many Native American tribes
for millennia, and according to one Native American student's recent
science project, chokecherries wield medicinal properties that extend
beyond prior knowledgein fact, cancer-fighting properties.
High school student, Destany "Sky" Pete, of the Shoshone and
Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in Idaho and
Nevada, developed interest in the medicinal properties of the chokecherry,
which is still harvested and consumed in her community today. Traditionally,
the Shoshone and Paiute prepared chokecherry pudding, known as toishabui,
in the Paiute language.
"The traditional (Shoshone and Paiute) method of preparing chokecherry
pudding includes the seed of the chokecherry, crushed up," Pete,
a junior at Owyhee High School in Nevada, told ICMN. "Nowadays,
some people just kind of juice the berry and take out the seed completely.
But maybe the seed has medicine that can help us to stay well."
Pete's curiosity concerning the necessity of the chokecherry
seed was inspired by a conversation she had with a traditional leader
in the community, who stressed that the reason for so many recent
illnesses within the tribe was the lack of traditional foods being
consumed, and specifically, traditional chokecherry pudding.
Motivated by that conversation, and her passion for science,
Pete embarked on an ambitious school science project. She sought
out to test the hypothesis, that chokecherries are medicine, and
to find answers to a more specific question: Can the traditional
preparation of chokecherry pudding, including the seed, inhibit
the growth of cancer cells?
To conduct this experiment, Pete's high school science teacher,
Dietlinde Dann, connected her with a biochemistry professor at Boise
State University, Dr. Ken Cornell, who works with uterine sarcoma
At the university, Pete tested four different specimens of chokecherries
by combining them with uterine sarcoma cancer cells, then, allowed
a 24-hour incubation period.
Pete found that out of the four different specimens tested,
the traditionally-prepared chokecherry pudding specimen had cancer
inhibiting properties, while the specimens without the seed, or,
with the chokecherry juice, alone, did not succeed at killing the
uterine sarcoma cancer cells.
"It was the traditional preparation of toishabui with the crushed
seeds that had the results," Pete said.
During the 24-hour incubation period, the mixture of toishabui
and the uterine sarcoma cancer cells resulted in a small amount
of cancer cell killing; however, Pete said that a longer incubation
period or a stronger dilution could yield stronger results.
"We can also try the experiment on different types of cancer
cells in the future," she said. "I really want to do the same test
on breast cancer cells."
After the completion of her project, Pete entered into the 2017
Elko County Science Fair in northern Nevada. Impressively, out of
over 440 science project entries, Pete was honored with a First
Grand Prize award, for linking traditional chokecherry pudding,
with the reduction of uterine sarcoma cancer cells.
The prestigious prize earned Pete a $500 scholarship, and a
collection of other awards and accolades from the likes of the Navy
and the Air Force. Pete's win also qualified her for the Intel International
Science Fair, held in Los Angeles, California, on May 14 -19.
At the International Science Fair, Pete competed against roughly
1,800 other high school students from more than 75 countries. And
while she didn't bring home the top prize this time around, Pete
was honored to represent her community.
"I'm proud to be Native American," Pete told ICMN. "And I want
people to know that science and culture can be represented together."
After high school, Pete hopes to attend Stanford
University and major in biology, then attend the University
of California Davis Veterinary School. She hopes to return to the
reservation to open up her own veterinarian practice.
"There is so much out there in the world. You can go to college,
and do anything, and then come back to your community," she said.
As for her science project win and the cultural affirming knowledge
gained, Pete said, "I feel like our ancestors were really healthy.
Nowadays, we're prone to diabetes
and other diseases. But back then, it was our food that made us
To the delight of her community and many other Indigenous Peoples,
Pete's science project affirmed what elders have been saying for
generations: Traditional diets, including the esteemed chokecherry
and chokecherry pudding, are so much more than food. They are medicinejust
don't forget the seeds.