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Tanka president Mark Tilsen, right, with Mark Sisson of

Ancestral Health Symposium:
The good, the bad and what was missing

By Jenice Johnson, manager of marketing and communications

Follow Jenice on Twitter @tankabar
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Tanka Bar President Mark Tilsen and I spent last week at the annual Ancestral Health Symposium at Harvard Law School in Boston, MA. The event is geared to continuing the discussion of living an ancestral life. In the simplest of terms, people typically identify this as "paleo," a lifestyle approach that removes processed foods, sticks to the fundamentals of meat, veggies, some nuts and fruit and advocates natural movement.

In the nearly two years I have worked for Native American Natural Foods, this was the first time I have worked an event with Mark. Learning more about the company through a co-founder's eyes was a thought-provoking experience. I learned a lot more about what hurdles we have to overcome and the reasons why the company runs the way it does, transparent and true to its mission of developing a better economical world for the Oglala Lakota community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota -- home to our headquarters.

It was also a wonderful experience to have Mark there at an event specific to how I am living today -- a more healthy lifestyle and a vast improvement to how I ate and lived a few years ago. He got to meet many of the leaders in this movement whom I've followed, such as Mark Sisson of, as well as several others who gave presentations. Mark Tilsen's a busy guy who gets email every 30 seconds and a phone call every five minutes, so this was a rare occasion!

Major pluses of AHS were the people. Many of them were only little floating heads and conversation to me on Facebook. I finally got to hug and chat with many of the people I have never met in person, and hug again others I'd met earlier this year at Paleo FX. The volunteers at AHS were also helpful, kind, eager and on the ready if you needed anything. The creators of this event are open-minded and wonderfully personable. Our table was often swarming with people intrigued with the products or who were already fans, which was refreshing for me and Mark was pleased to see the interest. And we were also honored to have been asked to be vendors.

I will admit it was a lot more important for me that Mark attend the sessions at AHS -- I already follow (or try to) much of what was discussed. That said, the few sessions I attended, left me wondering what more can be done on the local level to reach people who really could use this knowledge. They especially could benefit from a format that is more digestible than scientific jargon and minutia about what are "safe starches," do we even need them and dissecting every morsel every native tribe around the globe ate. Yes, there was more. But overall I see myself somewhat as a Joe Schmo-type of person.

Sure, I work for this company and many people from the paleo world eat our products. However, I'm not a nutritionist or looking to be one or a fitness coach. I'm not a scholar on food. I'm a woman who wanted to improve her health, and there are LOTS of others like me who may not even know what this movement is about. Then, when they look for it, there is so much conflicting information and costs to attend these events that it's not accessible.

After attending two paleo-related events, I have come to the conclusion academia has its place. An event like AHS has its place. But the people who really can benefit from this way of life and knowledge need an event that is more accessible. Many of them just want to get healthy. They want to know what their basic options are and where to do their shopping once they walk into their local grocery store. And even more may not even be able to afford living this way. What are their options?

The very people who need this education live in food deserts, much like the reservation where our company is headquartered. Yet every time I attend these events, there is a generalization from a few "scholars" of "what our ancestors ate" when it comes to the Native community. As always at these type of events or among the attendees, people seem to question Native American Natural Foods' use of cranberries in Tanka. One author went a step further to say not all pemmican included fruit, therefore, Tanka products shouldn't include fruit.

In truth, not all recipes were created equally -- it depended on the tribe and what was available. Lakota "pemmican" is WASNA. Read about it from our Oglala Lakota CEO, Karlene Hunter. Ultimately "pemmican" or "wasna" in the Lakota culture for example, means ALL MIXED UP. This included fruits to act as a preservative. Period. There's no reason for the Lakota to change its culturally traditional recipe to suit anyone, not even a paleo "expert."

Today's Native community in places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation do not have the options many people are lucky enough to enjoy today. Their basic nutritional needs are met with commodity government food. Let's get past "our ancestors" and really look at the problems faced at today's socioeconomic level. That is the crux of the issue of fast food eaters. Reaching beyond the elite is how we solve these issues of food and poor living.

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