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.
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