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

Project Reconnects Hopi Youth, Elders, Language & Traditions

Kaya and Hospomana making piki

In northeastern Arizona, Mesa Media, Inc. works hard to revitalize the Hopi language by distributing Hopi language learning materials – created by Hopi people, for Hopi people, in Hopi communities.

With a $20,000 grant from First Nations Development Institute’s 2012-2013 Native Youth and Culture Fund application cycle, as well as with funds leveraged from other sources, Mesa Media held several youth-based trainings and workshops and worked to create a set of conversational Hopi audio CDs and workbooks based on first-hand agricultural knowledge from Hopi elders.

From July 2012 through March 2013, Mesa Media held three language classes for more than 100 community members (mostly youth) from all 13 Hopi communities and three surrounding towns. During the classes, instructors used hands-on activities to introduce the youth to a variety of subjects, from improving vocabulary to aspects of Hopi foods and agriculture.  In addition, each participant received a complete set of Mesa Media’s Hopi language CDs, DVDs and books to use at home and to share with their families.

Traditional foods workshop

During the course of the grant, Mesa Media also offered a series of five hands-on workshops for Hopi girls to learn about traditional food preparation. The workshops were primarily held in the Hopi language and taught many traditional skills, including how to make piki (a thin bread made of corn). With the aid of instructors, the girls made the piki batter, built the fire and prepared piki using the ancient technology of spreading batter to just the right thickness on hot piki stones.

As a result of the workshops, Mesa Media has recorded a Hopi language CD that teaches about piki making. On the CD, one of the youth participants uses her new Hopi language and food-preparation skills to escort the audience through many of the steps in the process to make piki.

“In order for our youth to establish a sense of place in the world, they must first know who they are and where they come from. They must have a sense of their history and why their ancestors chose to live the way they did. Sometimes these things take a lifetime to explore and the elders are instrumental for passing on this knowledge,” Mesa Media noted in a report to First Nations. “With the introduction of modern schools and wage labor, Hopi youth no longer spend extended periods with their elders. Projects like this one help to re-establish the connection between youth and elders by engaging them in cultural activities and encouraging them to speak their language. From here, Hopi youth will gain the confidence to build their skills, seek an education and share with the world the teachings of their ancestors.”

Caden shows his effort at a workshop

At First Nations Development Institute, we know that our Native youth represent the future success and well-being of our people and our communities. The Native Youth and Culture Fund makes grants annually to support Native youth and culture programs throughout Native American communities in the U.S. The fund is supported by the Kalliopeia Foundation, along with contributions from other foundation, tribal, corporate and individual supporters.