Some of the Pine Ridge Reservation's buffalo herd
Our Tanka Vision for the Return of the Buffalo
By Mark A. Tilsen, Sr., President, Native American Natural Foods
As the Tanka Bar continues to grow into a national brand, every day we meet new friends who are excited about our products and are interested in learning as much as they can about our new category-busting Tanka foods. One question I am often asked: "Where do you get your buffalo and how much of it is really raised by Native American ranchers?"
In my mind, I think, "Well, NOT ENOUGH." And I explain that we are in the early stages of building a national brand and that we do not buy enough buffalo or have enough capital to buy full animals or commit to long-term supplier agreements yet! The problem for most Native American ranchers is that they need to sell the whole animal. Since we only use lean trim in our products, when we buy full animals, we then have to try and sell the rest to someone else.
Therefore, we buy most of our 90 percent lean buffalo trim from the small, but growing, buffalo industry processors. We do our best to buy from processors who buy from Native producers. We also look for buffalo that has lived on the prairie in as much of a wild environment as is possible in our fenced reality of today.
This means we seek to buy buffalo that is 100 percent grass fed. But this is difficult, as well, since buffalo have to be staged before they are processed and must be fed during this timeframe. Also, some processors grain-feed their buffalo in order to get better weight gains. While we actively support 100 percent grass-fed buffalo, we do not make the claim "100 percent" because we cannot be 100 percent assured that all of our buffalo is 100 percent grass fed at this time.
Long-term answers are complicated
The real long-term answer is much more complicated. It rests in what we at Native American Natural Foods call our Tanka Vision.
The History of the Return of the Buffalo is an answer to the prayers of many people. Historic Oglala Lakota leader Black Elk, who shared his vision regarding the buffalo's return with us all, made this concept famous. The full story can be found in John Neihardt's account, "Black Elk Speaks."
These prayers were answer by many named and unnamed heroes who took it upon themselves to save the buffalo from extinction. Ranchers, entrepreneurs, tribes and buffalo keepers, who rescued the fewer than 100 remaining animals and then bred the buffalo to the small but thriving industry we have today. These folks did not do this for money, but for the love of this great animal and as a commitment to our natural environment.
All were motivated by their own individual belief systems. For the Native American buffalo keepers, it was and is a quest to save a sister or brother nation. These keepers know that Native American people and the buffalo both came from the same land, each dependent on the other to survive, grow and be healthy. But the buffalo are their own providers, as well, and have paid their way back from extinction by sharing themselves.
I can't think of another species that has been saved from extinction by being marketed, but look at the facts: Buffalo have never been on the endangered species list or saved by a government program. Yet the buffalo herds in North America continue to grow. Today, there are more buffalo on the Great Plains of North America than any time since the late 1800s. Behind every herd, there is a story of sacrifice, heroism and commitment. The buffalo keepers and producers of today work together primarily through two national organizations, the National Bison Association and the Intertribal Bison Cooperative.
Native American Natural Foods was given its first buffalo by Birgil Kills Straight, Executive Director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Parks and Recreation Department. Mr. Kills Straight is a leader of the Oglala people and a buffalo keeper, who has dedicated his life to helping the buffalo return. His gift to us is a lesson in the generosity of the Lakota culture and shows how the buffalo herds have grown through sharing. It is a lesson that we all hold dear and one we hope to repay hundreds, if not thousands, of times over by dedicating ourselves to making our Tanka Vision a reality.
Why risk everything to build a Native American brand?
To understand our vision, first you need to understand why Karlene Hunter and I have decided to risk everything we have built in our lives to launch a national brand from one of the most isolated places in America. You see, we have spent most of our professional lives working with organizations trying to improve the lives and environment for people here on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
In 2003, we were asked to step in and reorganize the Lakota Funds, the first Native American Community Development Financial Institution in the United States. Lakota Funds is the only commercial lender on Pine Ridge Reservation. It was this experience that gave us the opportunity to work directly with small, fledging buffalo producers and to begin to understand the many, many obstacles they have to overcome to build thriving herds. As a group, these are dedicated, hard-working families who lack access to money, land, equipment and, most importantly, the market.
We are social entrepreneurs with goals of using profits from our business to improve the lives of our employees and to help our community by building a sustainable economy. We are always looking for ways of creating a functioning economy that can provide opportunities for the Lakota people.
With an unemployment rate on the reservation that has never been lower than 60 percent, there is a very good argument to be made that the last time the Lakota people had a functioning economy it was based on the buffalo.
For Native Americans, the buffalo provided everything from food, shelter, tools, housing and clothing. Many of these products, such as rope, medicines, toys and thread were all tradable items. I believe the first packaged food product exported out of the Great Plains was wasna, a mixture of buffalo meat and fruit that is the inspiration for our Tanka products. According to historical documents, wasna, packed in the stomachs of buffalo, was sold to the Hudson Bay Corporation.
This history led us to the question: Is it possible to create a modern buffalo-based economy? From this question, came our Tanka Vision.
Take a moment to dream
For a moment, allow me to take you on a trip with us to the future and imagine! For a moment, leave today behind and let your mind really imagine:
It is the year 2030 and you are traveling to visit the Oglala Lakota Nation. As you travel in your electric car, you look out to the pristine environment and the road is lined with buffalo fence. The waving ocean of prairie grass is dotted with wind generators on the horizon. Suddenly, the ground begins to shake as a herd of more than 1,000 buffalo run past, creating a cloud of dust. For a moment, you think you have fallen back in time 200 years when the buffalo were the largest migrating herds in the world. The power and beauty of the animals leaves you in awe.
As you pull into the Tanka Education Center, you are greeted by a young Native American ecologist who explains that, here, the buffalo roam free on more than two million acres of land and roads and communities are fenced in.
The young ecologist gives you a tour where you learn that all Tanka products are made following the Lakota belief of respect for all living things. Each buffalo is humanly taken and none of it is wasted. The blood is used to help cure cancer and make many more medicines. The bones are used to make the strongest prostheses ever made. Every hair and body part is marketed or made into art. What little is left is composted into a powerful organic fertilizer.
Your guide explains that Native American Natural Foods is a carbon positive business because the return of the great buffalo herds have aerated the soil and restored the biodiversity of the prairie to the point that it produces as much oxygen as some protected forests. You learn that we are part of the Great Buffalo Commons that is growing across America's heartland.
On the tour, you learn that way back in 2009 more than 50 percent of the people on Pine Ridge Reservation either had diabetes or were at risk for it. But today, diabetes is rare because we have returned to a buffalo-based diet. You also learn that that alcoholism that was once a scourge on the people is also rare, because our people eat healthy, live healthy and the employment rate is lower then the national average.
Next, you go to the Tanka Whole Buffalo Store, where every piece of art, clothing and food has come from the buffalo. Then, you're off to visit the geothermally heated greenhouses that grow acres and acres of organic fruits and vegetables using fertilizer from the buffalo.
As your day winds down, you are given a glass of organic Ceyaka (chay-ya-ka) wild mint iced tea and a crisp salad featuring the best tomato you have ever had. Sitting on an observation deck, listening and watching a Lakota youth drum group perform the centuries-old buffalo dance, you look out in the distance as more than 2,500 buffalo hear the ancient drumbeat and begin to move closer to the dancers. As the beauty of the moment washes over you, you are brought to tears of joy that those ranchers, entrepreneurs, tribes and buffalo keepers worked to save those last 100 buffalo so many years ago.
Moving toward the dream each day
This Tanka Vision may be only a dream today, but it is one we hope to strive for. Those brave men and women who hid the buffalo and stopped them from becoming totally extinct had a vision, a long-term view, and it is because of them that we all know and enjoy the buffalo today.
It is too early to tell if it's working, but our vision is to build our Tanka brand so strong that we can have a positive impact on the number of buffalo, the health and economy of our people, and the environment of the Great Plains.
We are taking steps to move in the dream's direction each day. We have begun the process of creating the Buffalo Nation Investment Fund. We plan to give a little back from each product we sell and to ask our friends to join us in building a fund that will be used to help our buffalo producers access more capital, land and technical assistance. In partnership with the Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, we have begun a study in developing a market approach to buffalo by-products, so we can truly begin to use every part of the buffalo.
This fall, we will expand the number of Native American buffalo producers from whom we buy directly in an effort to provide you with the highest quality buffalo while driving the economic impact of the Tanka brand back into Native American communities. We have begin to reduce our packaging by offering the new Tanka Eco Packs. We are one of the first businesses on the reservation to recycle most of our waste. We will continue to offer training and revenue sharing with our employees, and to work with each employee to help make him or her as successful as possible.
We are a small company with big dreams. We chose the word Tanka as the name of our brand because it a powerful Lakota word with complex meanings. While it can simply mean "big," it can also mean "biggest" or "all-encompassing," including all of natural creation on earth or the universe. It is simply the biggest idea we could come up with.
It is TANKA.
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