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

New Free Publications & Webinars Announced

We’ve been busy during the first quarter of 2014.  We published three new resources for Native American communities, plus we announced the 2014 calendar of our highly popular “First Nations Knowledge” webinar series.

The Business of Indian Agriculture

After months of research, writing, editing and designing the publication, we just published “The Business of Indian Agriculture,” a comprehensive curriculum for Native American farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers that can be downloaded for free from the First Nations website. It is designed to be used by tribal college instructors, extension agents or workshop instructors. It includes both a 562-page Instructor Guide and a 323-page Participant Workbook.

The curriculum is designed to help farmers, ranchers and agricultural producers succeed in managing their businesses. It covers useful topics like how to develop a business plan, how to set up bookkeeping systems, and marketing. It also covers important topics like risk management, personal financial management, and using credit wisely.

The project was supported by the USDA-NIFA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Program, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the CHS Foundation. Development of the curriculum was made possible through a partnership between First Nations and the First Americans Land-Grant Consortium (FALCON), which is a nonprofit professional association of administrators, faculty and staff of land-grant tribal colleges and universities.  FALCON is sanctioned by the American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC). John Phillips, who is executive director of FALCON, was the primary author. Phillips is also the land-grant program director for AIHEC.

The curriculum has five main modules:

  • Module 1: Business
  • Module 2: Accounting
  • Module 3: Financial Management
  • Module 4: Agribusiness Economics and Marketing
  • Module 5: Land Use and Management

The curriculum is offered free to anyone.  It can be viewed as an online “flipbook” or it can be downloaded as PDFs. Interested parties can also request a Word version of the materials to use and/or adapt for their own classes or other uses. To access the materials, please go to this link:

Health & Food Fact Sheets

We also published a new series of 12 fact sheets concerning Native American health and food issues.  You can read them or download them (as PDFs) from our website. They are absolutely free, but you may have to create a free account in our Knowledge Center (our online resource center) in order to access them.  If you already have a free account in our Knowledge Center, you can get right to them after you sign in.

Here’s the link:

The list of topics covered:

  • Native Food Sovereignty
  • History of Native Food Systems
  • Food Systems and Implications for Economic Development
  • Type 1 Diabetes In Native Communities
  • Type 2 Diabetes In Native Communities
  • Heart Disease in Native Communities
  • Obesity in Native Communities
  • Food Deserts, Food Insecurity and Poverty in Native Communities
  • Commodity Foods and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Traditional Native Foods and Health
  • Reclaiming Native Food Systems and Promoting Cultural Practices
  • Eating Healthy in Native Communities

These Fact Sheets were created as part of our Native Agriculture and Food Systems Initiative (NAFSI), and were generously underwritten by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

American Indian Leadership

We also published a 78-page report titled “American Indian Leadership: Strengthening Native Communities and Organizations.” It is available for free on our Knowledge Center at this link:

The report gives an historical perspective of Native American leadership styles, including what led to the development of tribal governments and Indian-led organizations today, and it looks at the state of existing Native leadership programs across the U.S. The publication was underwritten by Northwest Area Foundation.

Here’s an excerpt from the Executive Summary: “Despite attempts to diminish, belittle and totally transform Native concepts, belief systems and values of leadership, strong leadership remains one of the most important assets in Native communities. American Indian leaders have held steadfast to tribal belief systems and values and fought for the preservation and perpetuation of Native identity, land and sovereignty. Leaders of Native nations today are still committed to these values. Native leaders still recognize that strong, ethical and innovative leadership from various sectors has the ability to transform American Indian communities.”

Here’s the link again. Then select “American Indian Leadership: Strengthening Native Communities and Organizations.”

2014 Webinar Series

For the second year in a row, we announced we will host a series of free webinars called “First Nations Knowledge” during 2014. This year’s series focuses on food safety, and will provide specialized and technical webinars to develop the capacity of tribes, Native businesses, farmers, ranchers and other individuals involved in growing, processing, packaging and/or marketing food products.

We will present the webinars in partnership with the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law in Fayetteville. Each webinar will last 1-1/2 hours, with the first hour for presentations followed by a half-hour of questions and answers.

The first of this year’s nine-part series was held on March 20.   It was the first of two webinars on biological, chemical, radiological and physical hazards. The second part will be scheduled for April.

Over the webinar series, presenters from the University of Arkansas will include Steven C. Seideman, Ph.D., who is extension food processing specialist at the Institute of Food Science & Engineering; Janie Simms Hipp, J.D., LL.M. (Agricultural Law) (Chickasaw), who serves as founding director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative; and John Marcy, Ph.D., a food microbiologist with more than 35 years associated with the meat and poultry industries.

The planned remaining schedule for this year is as follows. Dates will be formalized on a monthly basis, and scheduling or topics may change depending on availability of expert presenters. To receive information about each webinar as it is scheduled, follow First Nations on Facebook and Twitter or sign up to receive informational emails from First Nations at this link. You can also check on the First Nations Knowledge webpage at this link:

  • March (Completed) – Part 1: Biological, Chemical, Radiological and Physical Hazards
  • April – Part 2: Biological, Chemical, Radiological and Physical Hazards
  • May – Basic Legal Environment for Food Safety
  • June – Documentation and Record-keeping; Validation and Verification
  • July – Your Business Plan & Food Safety
  • August – The Five Principles of Good Agricultural Practices
  • September – Raw Products, Wild Products and Value-Added Products
  • October – Food Labeling, Nutrition and Allergens
  • November – Food Defense