Tradition & Technology: San Carlos Apache Tribe’s Food Database

Fluent Apache speaker Twila Cassadore helped conduct, record and analyze well over 100 interviews with Apache elders.

Can tradition and technology co-exist? The San Carlos Apache Tribe, located in southeastern Arizona, has developed a first-of-its-kind traditional food database system that seems to suggest the answer is yes.

The database allows tribal healthcare leaders to preserve traditional Apache recipes so that nutritionists can analyze the nutritional content of these foods to replicate the traditional Western Apache diet. This project will allow the tribe to design a healthy, pre-reservation menu that will help reverse the growing trend of diet-related illnesses on the reservation.

In 2013, First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) awarded the San Carlos Apache Tribe $37,500 through First Nations’ Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI) to launch the database. With this grant, the tribe hired a fluent Apache speaker, Twila Cassadore, to conduct 100 interviews with tribal elders. Those elders helped identify more than 200 traditional Apache edible plants and nearly as many traditional Apache recipes.

The traditional food database led to new partnerships that aimed to involve the youth in Native food systems work.

A nutritionist has analyzed more than half of these recipes and modernized them so that they are more accessible to home cooks. For example, some recipes call for wild plants that are not typically sold in the grocery store or sown in the garden. The nutritionist, by finding a modern equivalent to these traditional ingredients, will help tribal members revive their pre-reservation diet.

“This database allows us to approach traditional cultural knowledge as a science,” says botanist Seth Pilsk. “To respect it in a traditional manner, but not shy away from studying and analyzing it. We are using traditional knowledge as a means to solving contemporary problems.”

Traditionally, the tribe incorporated food and food production into every aspect of their lives, from sacred rituals and ceremonies to their social and political structures. This project seeks to re-establish the tribe’s healthy relationship with food and, in the process, alleviate some of their current social and economic ills, including substance abuse, suicide, domestic violence, diabetes, obesity, poverty and unemployment.

Apache elders firmly believe that a return to a healthy, pre-reservation diet will help reverse these negative trends and enhance the lives of their tribal members – culturally, physically, socially and politically. Indeed, the information gleaned from this database has already started to have a positive impact on the community.

Tribal healthcare leaders have partnered with the Diabetes Prevention Program, the Wellness Program, The Department of Forest Resources, and the Language Preservation Office to develop a model program based on traditional – mostly food-related – activities. Most recently, they have held a series of meetings with the tribe’s Elders Cultural Advisory Council to identify the major principles needed to inform a Tribal Food Policy Committee. This committee will recommend policies for the tribal leadership to support traditionally-based food systems, health and economic development.

This project has allowed the tribe to successfully merge tradition and technology to improve the physical and social health of their people. The success of this traditional food database system reiterates that tribes have the knowledge and power to strengthen their own communities.

By Sarah Hernandez, First Nations Program Coordinator

13 thoughts on “Tradition & Technology: San Carlos Apache Tribe’s Food Database

  1. I am full of admiration !!!!
    Born and raised in Germany after WWII, when Europe was in ruins , I learned to eat a simple, basic diet which I have been following to this day. My parents turned the lawn into plots for growing potatoes, beans, tomatoes and raised chickens, etc. There were no processed foods. Mother and Grandmother made lots of preserves. The family went into the forest to collect mushrooms, hazelnuts and beech nuts, and sent us children to glean corn left on the fields after the harvest , to feed the chickens. I have such wonderful memories.
    Heartfelt congratulations on your initiatives !!!! I will make a contribution in support.
    Marianne in Connecticut

  2. I would love to see the recipes become a cookbook that is affordable for those on restricted budgets. I know several people who are diabetic/pre-diabetic and have ancestors who were Native Americans (sorry if that isn’t politically correct it is how they referred to themselves). Peace

  3. Well done! Good work! If you build a book with this precious knowledge, I would like to purchase one.
    May the “San Carlos Apaches” (I know that is not your real name) become stronger and stronger and endure as long as Our Earth embraces Us.

  4. This is absolutely delightful news to hear and read about! It validates a truism in that, “We really are able keep any part of our culture or traditions so long as we are willing to take and make the time to practice them (live them) in our daily lives.” Thank you for taking and making the time to make it easier for any tribal members in your area to claim and replicate the knowledge of your shared food heritage; keep it alive in the hearts of your people.

  5. Apaches are well known for desert survival and i would be honored to be trained by you. In point of fact there is room in science and native American traditions. It is called ethnobiology. Take asprin as an example; if memory serves me correct: it was observed that native Indians chewing on the willow bark that created the well know medication.
    So, imagine the lost with the lost of tradition. We all can learn from. Each other.

  6. It would be wonderful to know this information for every ecosystem. People used to eat what was naturally available in the area around them. I believe that it kept them from illness and allergies and such. Now we have so many plants that were brought in from other places so it would be wonderful to know what is supposed to be in the different areas. Best wishes compiling your recipes.

    • That is true it is the saditory lifestyle and food intakes that cause the problem. We have a bean call ” stink bean”(locally called petai) hogh in amino acide and urine and tard tends to stink for hours. Many dont eat. Nowadays walking 400 meters is considered too far

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