What Did the Apache Indians Eat?

Have you ever wondered what you could eat if you were lost in the mountains of Southern Arizona? If you attended the January meeting of our local Arizona Native Plant Society, you'd now not only have an idea of what you can eat, you would have had a chance to nibble on some of these edible wild foods. Page Bakarich of Willcox gave us a well-researched slideshow on the native wild foods of the Chiricahua Apache. He must have spent weeks collecting the assortment of dried wild foods he had for us to sample after the slideshow. The dried mesquite cakes were very tasty, as well as the dried blue elderberries and wild grapes.

Some of the local native wild foods he introduced us to include: Blue elderberries (black elderberries are poisonous), chokecherries, wild grapes, red raspberries, gooseberries, manzanita berries, squawberry (Rhus trilobata), lemonade berry, juniper berry, pinon nuts, acorns, mesquite beans (very sweet when ripe yellow red), lambsquarter, wild amaranth, native sunflower seeds, grass seeds, tepary beans, dandelions, horse purslane, yucca torrey flower pods, prickly pear fruits (taste great dried). Page told us that the Indians would pound everything on flat rocks, then form it into cakes and dry it. Or they would mix it with dried deer jerky to make pemmican.

Here are some guidelines for eating wild foods: don't forage within 100 feet of a road or parking area - the plants may be polluted. Never collect from areas treated with herbicide, pesticide, or other chemicals.

When you first start harvesting wild plants, be sure you are eating the right plant. Use 3 photographic references if you are unfamiliar with the plant. Edible wild plant expert Linda Runyun has produced a great set of wild plant cards, complete with photos and hints on how to use each plant Her Edible Wild Foods Cards are available for $10 plus tax and shipping costs (Wild Foods, Inc., 3531 W. Glendale Ave., Suite 369, Phoenix, AZ 85051. Tel. 602-930-1067).

And last, before eating a wild plant for the first time, crush, sniff, and inspect the plant carefully. Rub a tiny bit on your gums to see your personal reaction to the plant, and wait 20 minutes. Observe yourself for burning, nausea, itching, or stinging. Or, make a weak tea to further test edibility.

I once asked Willy Whitefeather, Cherokee Indian and author of Outdoor Survival Handbook For Kids, what we could do if we were lost in the mountains and didn't see any familiar weeds or wild plants to eat. He told me the old Cherokee way of testing wild plants, "so you don't get sick, or worse croak". Willy says that many people have croaked when lost and hungry by eating the wrong plant. Don't take any body's word that a wild plant is good to eat. Here is the test many generations of Indians have used:

1) Make sure there is enough of whatever you want to test to make a meal. This test takes one hour and 40 minutes. You'll probably be real hungry by then.

2) Crush the leaf or berry and smell it. Does it smell like something you want to eat? If not, find something else to eat and start over.

3) If it smells edible, take a piece the size of your baby fingernail. Rub it on your gums on one little spot. Then chew it on the tips of your front teeth, spitting out the saliva. Don't swallow your saliva. Wait 20 minutes. Observe your tongue or gums. Do they burn? Do you feel dizzy? If you don't like the taste or you feel dizzy, then spit out all of your saliva. And go find something else to eat.

4) If you like it, then take a piece the size of your thumb nail. Chew it with your front teeth and then spit it out. Now swallow a little bit of your saliva and wait 20 more minutes. How do you feel? If you feel dizzy or sick, forget that plant.

5) If you feel good, take another piece the same size and chew it up. Swallow it. Wait one hour. If you still feel okay, go ahead and eat some more.

My plan is to grow some of the local native edible foods that Page Bakarich shared with us. They will surely take less care and water than plants that are native somewhere else.

Cathe' Fish
February, 1992