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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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A Return To Pre-reservation Diet May Be Key To Healing For Apache
by photos and story courtesy of Seth Pilsk, Department of Forest Resources, San Carlos Apache Tribe

Twenty years ago, while teaching employees of the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s 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. Johnson’s 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.

To 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 dishes;
  • 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 search.

With funding from the Tribe’s 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 nutritional analysis.

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 can’t 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)

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