Twenty years ago, while teaching employees of the San Carlos
Apache Tribes Department of Forest Resources staff about traditional
Apache plants, the late elder Wallace Johnson said, If we
eat our traditional Apache food and exercised, there would be none
of these new diseases.
That simple statement has stuck in the heads of those employees,
and they wondered if the knowledge of Mr. Johnsons generation
(who was born in 1903) directly taught to him from forebears
who grew up before Apaches were herded onto reservations
held keys to combating the epidemics of poor physical and emotional
health, suicide, and sexual violence amid the Reservation backdrop
of generationally-embedded toxic stress.
test part of this idea, San Carlos Apache staff launched the Traditional
Western Apache Diet Project two years ago. The purpose of this project
is to study and analyze the pre-Reservation diet of the San Carlos
Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Tonto Apache Tribe, and
Apaches of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, all in Arizona.
The project aims to produce:
- General and detailed narratives and nutritional analyses
of the pre-Reservation Apache diet;
- An analysis of commercially-available modern equivalents
to wild Apache food species and wild candidates for cultivation;
- A cookbook of pre-Reservation dishes and modern, traditionally-based
- Educational products including peer-reviewed papers, articles,
and curriculum; and
- Meaningful Tribal food and health policy.
To accomplish this, project staff reviewed interviews with Apache
elders from past projects and conducted an exhaustive literature
With funding from the Tribes Department of Health and
Human Services, staff conducted over 70 formal and countless informal
interviews with elders, and hired a nutritionist who began
the detailed work of analyzing the over 200 species of wild plant
foods, several strains of Apache corn and squash, and over 40 kinds
of wild meat. Staff also began compiling sample daily menus for
While analysis is still in process, two years of work have yielded
some initial findings:
- The pre-Reservation diet is extremely healthy, and is
- High in fiber
- Low in saturated fat
- High in healthy fats
- Low in cholesterol
- Low in sodium and processed sugar
- Rich in a wide variety of whole foods
- Filling, with little volume
- The pre-Reservation diet is seasonal; varying with the seasons,
tying individuals and the community to the natural order of seasons
in terms of nutrition, activity, and ceremony.
- In pre-Reservation times, food production was the basis of
activity and movement, economy, ceremony, and political structure.
- The traditional Apache relationship with food is deeply personal,
respectful, and spiritual.
With current funding ending, and to complete the work necessary
to fully analyze the diet, the project is looking at ways to sustain
this promising work. For Twila Cassadore, a project assistant and
a San Carlos Apache Tribal member, working on the project has been
a profound and healing experience for her and her family. You
cant bring healing to Native people without involving a connection
to the land, she says. Nothing will work without that.
(This article first appeared in the National Indian Health Board
email newsletter, March 30, 2014)