Native American Natural Foods:
A Company with a Mission
Residents of Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota have to drive 85 miles to find healthy food. Their closest option to fresh fruits and vegetables is located in Rapid City.
The reservation is a food desert, an area vapid of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods. Kyle has one stop-n-shop gas station and a small grocery store. The small store has a very limited supply of tired fruits and vegetables available.
33,000 enrolled tribal members live on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 50 mile by 90 mile reservation is the size of Delaware.
Diabetes on the reservation is epidemic. The health statistics on Pine Ridge Reservation are comparable the Haiti’s health statistics. A study by Black Hills Knowledge Network concluded that 43 percent of adults in Oglala Lakota County are obese. That is 17 percent higher than the national rate.
“We’re the third poorest county in the United States,” said Karlene Hunter, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and resident of Pine Ridge Reservation.
All of her life, Karlene watched as her community atrophied from lack of real food and limited opportunities to succeed. She was tired of watching her friends and family become sick on the reservation. She was overwhelmed by statistics that were released in the 90s that showed 44 percent of children on the reservation having diabetes. “When you’re confined in a food desert and have limited access of good food, then you have to, as a community, find other ways to access real food,” said Karlene.
In 2007, Karlene and her friend Mark Tilsen decided to better the health of their community. Together, they founded Native American Natural Foods — Tanka, a company aimed at providing nutritious, preservative-free buffalo snacks to people.
“The idea was, if we could get back to eating traditionally with berries and buffalo meat, and things like that, it would help our communities immensely.”
Tanka was created to help people eat healthily regardless of access. “We didn’t create the company and develop a mission, ours came from a mission and we developed the company to try to spur the economy and healthy eating here in Kyle, South Dakota,” said Karlene.
Karlene and Mark crafted the traditional Tanka Bar with traditional recipes like wasna: smoking buffalo and mixing it with berries. Wasna was first used by the Lakota people hundreds of years ago on hunts, to keep hunters full for the entirety of their journey.
You may have seen Tanka Bars at the checkout counter of Whole Foods,Vitamin Cottage or REI. The buffalo jerky bars are wrapped in yellow, prairie grass-colored wrapping with “Tanka” printed in bold letters across the top. “Native American Natural Foods” surrounds a buffalo emblem. Tanka won the 2010 Editor’s Choice Award in Backpacker Magazine.
Karlene sits in her office in Kyle. The office building is a ranch-style manufactured home turned office building. Tanka shares the space with Owinza Quilting Cooperative, a quilting group that makes traditional, Lakota quilts.
Around Karlene’s office, symbols of her excellency and tributes to her hang on the white walls. A red and green flag embroidered with the words “Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations” hangs to her left. Photos of her three daughters and six grandchildren are scattered throughout the room. Behind her desk, school pictures of each of her grandchildren are taped to a metal file cabinet.
Karlene lights up when she talks about her family. She tells a story that embodies who she is as a mother and member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe. After receiving her MBA from Oglala Lakota College, Karlene was offered three different high-paying positions in business six hours away in Denver, Colorado. She wanted to make a better life for her daughters and provide for them in a way she had not been able to before but she was also dedicated to her home, Pine Ridge Reservation, and rebuilding the community she had grown up in. After wrestling with her choices, Karlene decided to stay in Pine Ridge and raise her family on the reservation. She knew she would have to work even harder to make a good life for them but she was loyal to her community. Karlene wanted to better the lives of her friends and family right from the reservation.
Tanka supports Native producers as much as possible. Tanka uses pasture-raised buffalo meat mainly produced by Native ranchers. There are nine buffalo ranchers right on Pine Ridge Reservation. In 2012, Tanka created the Tanka Fund, a non-profit to get Native buffalo producers up and running.
The buffalo nation and the Lakota nation have always been a sister nation. Karlene said they depend on one another to succeed.
“We’ve always considered them a sister nation to us. They’ve helped supply our food, our clothing, our housing since we’ve been around. It’s fascinating that the buffalo nation and Lakota nation run parallel tracks that when the buffalo nation was strong the Lakota nation was strong, when it started to decline, our people started to decline. That’s why if we can build our herd strong again our people will be strong again.”
Buffalo provide a healthy food source to the community while having little impact on the land.
“Buffalo meat is healthier than skinless chicken for you, and it has more Omega-3s than an avocado, so it’s very healthy meat. Our thought pattern was, if we could bring the buffalo back to the reservation and get our tribe and other nations eating healthy again, it’s a win-win proposition.”
Karlene says that buffalo are native and good for the landscape. “When buffalo are on the land the natural grasses come back. Buffalo roam so they’re good for the environment. They’re a big importance to us, that’s why we decided we’d base the company on good, healthy protein.”
Tanka’s ingredients used in their products reflects their mission to help native people succeed and eat healthy while providing healthy food to the entire nation. Their newest jalapeno bar uses peppers sourced from Navajo Country and other southern tribes. The wild rice used in their bars is produced from the Red Lake Tribe in Minnesota.
Despite their mission-driven, wholesome approach to healthy food, Tanka is threatened by copycat products from big companies. General Mills and Nestle have recently developed knockoff products. General Mill’s newly acquired company, Epic, has many similarities to the Tanka product. They ask consumers to “reconnect with your ancestral diets and enjoy every bite.” Their marketing model plays on ideas of getting back to our roots and to our native ways. The company launched in 2013, six years after Tanka began making an impact in the health foods and snack sector.
“A couple of years ago, some of the big players in the food industry jumped into our category and today, they’re running tough competition for us. We really didn’t know how severe it was going to be, but they have deep pockets and they can out-market us.”
The mission behind Tanka is what really sets them apart from their competition. “We got into this business to help spur the economy here and to help it go hand-in-hand with healthy eating. We didn’t do it to get rich off of it and we didn’t flip the company in five years, which that’s what they do in the food industry. It makes it very tough for us to hold our own in a world that is just out for profit.”
Sadly, Karlene is used to seeing big companies take advantage of Native practices.
“My whole life, and [my business partner] Mark’s whole life, we have worked to try to help develop better conditions on the reservation. When you have companies that are in it for the money that can just outsource everything it makes it really tough. It’s been heartbreaking for me. The minute the category started taking off and was created we had copycats jumping in all the time. But as Native people, we’ve seen that over and over and over again. It’s heartbreaking. It’s like we get to a point and there’s light at the tunnel and it’s like this could really have an impact here, we could create jobs, buffalo producers can be created, we can spur our economy by healthy eating, raise everybody’s health statistics and everything and then boom we’ve got a roadblock of somebody coming in and outspending you.”
Despite the harsh competition, Karlene has hope. “We have our story, and we’ve got a premium product. Hopefully that will sustain us.”
The best way to support the efforts of Karlene and Tanka and the betterment of Pine Ridge Reservation is by choosing the label Tanka by Native American Natural Foods when looking for a healthy snack. You can also help the Tanka mission by donating to the Tanka Fund, an effort that teaches Native people how to ranch buffalo in traditional ways.
“When you are out grocery shopping think about what you’re putting in your body. There’s products out there that are cheaper than Tanka, but look at the ingredients in them. Look at who makes them and who that company really is. Support businesses that are trying to do something locally and are trying to make a difference.”