Monday, June 15, 2009

Health Profile: Geronimo

A well-known Chiricahua Apache and leader of his people, Geronimo is most recognized for his bouts with -- and escapes from -- Mexican and U.S. military troops in the mid to late 1800s. Among the Apache, Geronimo was thought to have great powers, including the ability to see into the future and leave no tracks when moving through the mountains and deserts of his tribe's territory. His band of Apache warriors were among the last Native American peoples to surrender to the U.S. government and live on reservations.

Tales of Geronimo's cunning retreats from his military pursuers abound. One story holds that Geronimo and his band disappeared without explanation when trapped in a cave that had no second entrance. On horseback, he and his warriors were able to keep ahead of the U.S. cavalry -- with its horses and loads of supplies -- at a pace of 70 miles a day while carrying very little and living on wild plants and animals, even resorting to killing their own horses for sustenance. During battles, Geronimo was shot and wounded several times yet never succumbed to death from a bullet wound.

In short, the man was -- like most traditional native peoples of his time -- quite a specimen.

Looking at his photos, Geronimo's beautiful facial structure -- round face, square jaw, prominent cheek bones, wide flaring nostrils -- is readily apparent. This indicates a full and proper development during his formative years as an infant, young boy, and teenager. (We can't comment on his teeth as he never smiled in photos, but he probably had all of them.) His broad shoulders and upright posture suggest agile movement and strength. Like a wild animal, Geronimo was optimally built for his rugged environment of high mountain sky islands and vast seas of low desert. Having lived near, and backpacked through, the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona (Geronimo's former stomping grounds) for several months, I can attest to the ruggedness of this landscape.

Lifestyle plays a major role in the fitness levels of Geronimo. Traveling on foot or horseback for up to 70 miles, stalking wild game, and crafting tools and shelters from his surroundings, he spent his life using his body. This lifetime "use" was certainly a major contributing factor to his physical capabilities. Yet, perhaps he wouldn't have been as capable -- his body not as supported, his build not as solid, his immunity and ability to recover from bullet wounds diminished -- if he hadn't also eaten the natural, primitive diet of his people. What kind of diet was that? Here's a list of some of the staple foods that the Apaches ate and the nutritional qualities that make them supportive:
  • Wild game: deer, elk, quail, rabbit, etc. --> utilizable proteins and fats, which provide amino acids, b-vitamins, fat-soluble vitamins, and, when using the whole animal (as was common in Geronimo's day), every single needed nutrient the human body needs. (Interstingly, the Apaches had taboos against eating snakes, frogs, fish, and bears.)
  • Corn, beans, and squash--> starchy carbohydrates traditionally processed to eliminate anti-nutrients (fermented, roasted, soaked, leached, etc.) providing supplemental energy and sparing fat loss; additional vitamins and minerals (for an interesting account of how Apaches prepared a fermented corn drink called tizwin, see bottom of this post)
  • Agave--> heart of the plant pit-roasted, young stalks eaten; provides supplemental starch and sugars in the diet; spares fat loss ... but gives horrible gas (I can attest to this myself after eating a pit-roasted agave -- yeesh!)
  • Acorns & Pine nuts--> roasted, soaked, leached, pounded, or eaten fresh (some species); beneficial proteins and fats; particularly rich in monounsaturated fatty acids
  • Prickly Pear Cactus--> fruit cooked into syrup or eaten fresh and young pads boiled or roasted (high in oxalic acid raw); fruits rich in electrolytes for a hot, dry climate; pads rich in calcium and vitamin A beta-carotene
Really, if we break it down, we find that the Apaches were quite omnivirous much like other hunter-gatherer tribes across the world (Australian Aborigines and Bushmen of the Kalahari come to mind). Geronimo's very supportive, nutrient-dense Apache diet of meat and properly prepared plant foods allowed for the full facial and skeletal development -- as well as the mental sharpness and alertness -- common to traditional peoples eating a traditional diet (see Weston Price's studies for more on this).

So, it seems that the famous Apache leader lived healthfully with vigor and "fierceness" (as many accounts report) throughout his life. But what of his lifespan? Does it fit the description, "nasty, brutish, and short?" Not in the least. Geronimo lived from 1829-1909, dying at age 79 from pneumonia after drunkenly falling off his horse and contracting a severe cold. Had his life not been cut short by this accident, perhaps he would have lived well into his 80s or 90s.

"I cannot think that we are useless or God would not have created us. There is one God looking down on us all. We are all the children of one God. The sun, the darkness, the winds are all listening to what we have to say."

Making "Tiznin" -- An Apache Fermented Corn Drink

"First, they soaked the corn overnight in water. They dug a long trench and lined it with grass, placed the soaked corn in the trench, and covered it with another layer of grass. Sometimes they covered the whole with earth or a blanket. After sprinkling the corn with water morning and evening for ten days, during which it sprouted, they took it out, ground it with their grinding stones (mano and metate), and then boiled it for five hours. Finally, they strained off the liquid and set it aside. After about twenty-four hours, when it stopped bubbling, it was ready to drink." (From Geronimo: The Man, His Time, His Place by Angie Debo, p. 22)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Back From the Wild

I recently returned from my first 8 day shift (and hiatus from blogging) as a field guide with a local wilderness therapy organization here in Utah. For those unfamiliar, the wilderness therapy industry is made up of organizations -- private, non-profit, and corporate branches -- which treat clients with behaviorial and substance-abuse issues by removing them from civilization and plopping them in the desert or woods or mountains for several weeks of backpacking and therapeutic work. Field guides (like me) in these programs backpack with a group of 2-10 clients (both teens and adults) for a period of 8 days at a time in the wilderness with 6 days off between shifts. If you're a guide like me, you do it all in homemade tire sandals (see picture). The particular program that I now work for specializes in addictions of all kinds, incorporating a 12-Step model (i.e. Alcoholics Anonymous) as the centerpiece of their approach.

In addition to this, primitive living skills are utilized and encouraged as important metaphors. A fire-by-friction bow-drill, for example, provides clients with an opportunity to interact with their surroundings in a practical and creative way to make fire for cooking, warmth, and comfort. When a client has met such a challenge, the accomplishment can be a significant confidence-builder, supporting the difficult recovery from addiction as the client says, "Hey! I just made fire with sticks! Maybe I do have the ability to stop using drugs." Other skills include general backpacking know-how (tarps, sleeping gear, cooking, etc.), caring for pack llamas (yes, each group has a few of these disgustingly lovable creatures), and wayfinding in the wilderness.

Of course, as someone who has a keen eye for nutrition and how it relates to health, I observed the foods being eaten by both the field guides and clients in the program. To my surprise, the foods weren't all that bad. Aside from the typical wheat products (and the potentially problematic gluten therein), I was pleased to see that each client was given a pound of cheese every four days, tuna, fresh meat once a week, and mostly starchy carbohydrates (the sole exceptions being dried fruit, sweetened granola, and "gookinaid" -- a powdered, sugary, electrolyte drink). The group foods included a pound of butter. Questionable foods that one might lump under the "good-not-great" category included: peanut butter with hydrogenated palm oil, spam, and "instant" refried beans.

While this wilderness therapy program isn't tailored to incorporate nutritional therapy, they do so without knowing it by providing the clients with a low-fructose diet. This in and of itself can go a long way towards restoring health, in my opinion. With such a diet, as well as the daily physical activity of backpacking and camping, I found the clients to be quite stable, even those coming off of hard drugs like heroin.

That's not to say that things couldn't be better. I'm a big believer in the power of nutritional therapy and would love to see some use of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Particularly for a population like addicts and alcoholics who are in a physically depleted and/or unbalanced state, it would be great refuel their bodies and alter their addictive brain chemistry with the help of supplements. As for food, it would be ideal if clients had access to pemmican (which I personally made and brought out for myself), more fresh meat, and perhaps some fresh raw milk, cheese, cream and butter -- all preferably from grass-fed animals. Supplying digestible, low-toxin foods (such as white rice) and eliminating many of the canned meats and commonly allergenic foods (such as wheat) might help immensely as well. A wilderness therapy program that incorporates these things could be far more successful in terms of graduating clients' continuing sobriety. With such results, the program might be more financially stable as it attracts publicity and recommendations due to its higher success rates.

One such program -- the only one in existence that I know of -- is Open Sky Wilderness Therapy based in Durango, Colorado. These folks have a constant flow of clients. Why? A big reason is their use of all organic and grass-fed foods -- something that people look for nowadays with all the media attention and rising popularity of such products. (*cough* Michael Pollan *cough*) To me, this attention to quality nutrition is the wave of the future in wilderness therapy, and I am hearing more and more talk about it. However, from what I gather from others who have worked with Open Sky, my only criticism is their minimal use of animal products (little to no meat and a lot of rice or quinoa or beans in group stews with little added butter or coconut oil is common -- check out their food menu) and their belief in unprocessed "whole foods," which means nutrient-robbing toxins bound up in whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans aren't eliminated during cooking. Phytates for breakfast, anyone?