From the scraggy peaks of the Badlands National Park, to rolling prairie, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota covers over two million acres. It’s also a food desert, but that didn’t stop Oglala Lakota tribal member Karlene Hunter and her business partner Mark Tilsen from co-founding a social venture in 2005 called Native American Natural Foods. In fact, it spurred them on to do so. With an unemployment rate of 72%, the Pine Ridge Reservation is the third poorest county in the United States, and Tilsen and Hunter are determined to bolster the local economy.
Tilsen and Hunter’s company makes snack foods based on traditional Native American recipes. Their premier product, the Tanka Bar, a mix of dried buffalo meat and berries, is based on the Lakota traditional food called wasna which, as Tilsen explains, means “all mixed up.” In addition to promoting the Native American way of wellness, Tilsen and Hunter want to return buffalo to the Native land and people.
Tilsen and Hunter are winners of a 2011 SVN Innovation Award, which recognize some of the most promising social ventures and innovative entrepreneurs working to build a more just and sustainable world. I recently interviewed Mark Tilsen about the genesis of Native American Natural Foods, and the trajectory he and Hunter see for their company.
What was the impetus for you to start the company?
We have a history of development work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that spans more than 25 years. Our goal is to build a sustainable brand that is strong enough to have a positive impact on the economic, social and nutritional needs of the Oglala Lakota people. Making a buffalo product was crucial to the goal because the Lakota people once had a sustainable economy based on the buffalo that was destroyed by the U.S. military.
Now our company seeks to bring the buffalo back so the people may live. The Lakota people believe they are a sister nation to the buffalo — that as long as the buffalo survive, so will the people.
What does Tanka mean and why did you name your product the Tanka Bar?
In Lakota, Tanka means large or great. The word Tanka can be all-encompassing. It can mean from large to largest to all of natural creation. The name was chosen with the help of the community to honor the buffalo and recognize that this is a big project. It is the biggest, most Tanka idea we could come up with to change our situation.
What is the key to your mission?
Our mission is to create a family of nationally branded food products that are delicious and that promote a Native American way of wellness that feeds mind, body, and spirit.
This is about living in a world filled with healthy foods that add to the restoration and preservation of our lands and ecosystem — a world without the pain of starvation or obesity.
How do you empower Native Americans and the Native American community through your company?
Ninety percent of our staff are tribal members who are based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the home of our headquarters. We empower our community by providing jobs and opportunities for growth.
How are you specifically helping your Lakota tribe?
Native American Natural Foods is partially owned by The Lakota Fund Community Development Financial Institution and the Indian Land Tenure Foundation. So in addition to the creation of jobs, and the opportunities for Native American buffalo products, we are also looking toward wealth creation to make sure profits stay in the community and tribe.
What do you consider the most critical aspect of your business?
With this being a social venture, our hope is to give back to the community, whether it is helping fund tribal-based programs or growing more jobs on the reservation. We have to do everything right. We have to be better than just good enough.
How do you hope to make an economic impact on your community?
We currently buy our buffalo from a variety of sources. Our goal is to buy 100% Native American grass-fed buffalo raised following the wild model. This would in turn filter money back onto the reservation. Our goal is to convert one million acres of tribal land from cattle production to buffalo production in the next 10 years.
We look to continue to create a family of brands based on Native American foods, products and values.
It also comes down to our buffalo restoration. The buffalo and the Great Plains were made for each other. The understanding that buffalo restoration is prairie restoration guides our focus on the buffalo as a cornerstone of our business. We are in the early stages, but our goal is to be on the forefront of this movement.
No species is more suited to the huge prairie ecosystems than the buffalo. At Native American Natural Foods, we seek to restore this indigenous species by creating markets for its products. As a result of increased buffalo production, we also seek to restore prairie ecosystems, which are the most imperiled in the United States.
What kind of an impact have you had thus far?
Native American Natural Foods has given yet another great example of a Native company thriving in today’s times beyond casinos.
This is not just a job for our employees. It’s a chance to enrich their lives.
Our local fans have said they are proud to have something positive coming from their reservation – a place that has been surrounded by so much negativity. This is the best of Lakota people, the best of the buffalo.
Photo credit: Kevin McKiernan