Regenerating the Land and Native Communities with Bison
As the demand for meat continues to escalate during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the store shelves grow bare and the food supply system finally shows the cracks of a system of largess. I’m seeing how sustainable, smaller production models, like Niman Ranch, are succeeding and supporting the families who work the land and raise the animals. I’m reminded of how my Native people lived with a deep commitment to the preservation of our food and land. The question of what we must do to impact the future of a sustainable food system can be answered by listening to my elders who whisper: honor the sacred Buffalo. Yes, the answer is BISON.
Bison are at the heart of our Native community. I’m so glad to see that there is a newfound appreciation for their role as an important species for healing our lands and restoring natural balance. With a population upwards of 30 million just a couple of hundred years ago, bison were on the brink of extinction by the 1880s with just a few hundred remaining. Through conservation efforts and an expanding market demand, there are now an estimated 500,000 of these giant mammals. Many bison have been revitalized by my own Native community on the Pine Ridge reservation.
I would like to share a true story with you about bison, my home reservation and a brand called Tanka. Tanka was founded in 2007 on Pine Ridge by owners Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen, who both embraced the lives and foods of the Lakota people. They looked to an ancient, indigenous recipe and helped modernize the bison and cranberry snack called wasna that we continue to use today in ceremonies and gatherings in a way that is restoring and regenerating Native lands, our people and our culture.
The Roots of Tanka: Wasna
Traditional wasna is a pounded mix of dried buffalo meat and berries that has long been a mainstay of the Lakota culture. Loosely translated in Lakota, wasna means “all mixed up” and the mixture has sustained my people for generations. Mark and Karlene saw promise in wasna as a snack that could have mainstream appeal while driving demand for the bison. They worked with the community – elders, business people, and the youth – to create the brand named Tanka. Named for the Lakota word for “outstanding” or “great,” the Tanka Bar offered a powerful protein-packed on the go snack that created the meat bar snack category. The news of the Tanka Bar was first reported in the New York Times in 2007 and officially launched at a pow wow in 2008. By 2015 sales had exceeded $5 million and brought employment to 15 members of the Pine Ridge community and additional staff throughout the US.
Regenerating Bison Populations, the Land, and Our Communities
The goal of Tanka has always been much bigger than just a snack business. The founders knew that if the endeavor proved successful, the Lakota people could build a more resilient future for the Pine Ridge community, starting with the bison.
By bringing back bison to the land, we are creating a self-regenerative income stream and one that also has a bountiful regenerative impact for the environment. Bison are wild animals that freely roam over thousands of acres as they forage, naturally aerating the soil and adding important nutrients through their manure. This helps builds soil health, which has a whole host of benefits including increased biodiversity, reduced run off, and increased organic matter. This organic matter captures carbon in the soil, keeping it locked in the land rather than in our atmosphere where it contributes to climate change. Many experts point to regenerative agriculture – including bison grazing on pasture – as an important part of the global warming solution.
New Partnerships, Slow Money Effort Supports Tanka’s Future
The Tanka Bar’s popularity and rapid growth brought out competitors who also saw opportunity in the new meat bar snack category. These new brands did not have our cultural connection to wasna, but they did have deeper pockets and the distribution network to grow quickly and reach markets we were not yet able to access.
Over the last five years, we found ourselves nearly squeezed out of the marketplace, struggling to stay alive.
We realized that to build a regenerative agriculture focused business, we needed regenerative capital. Tanka is not a business that is going to get you rich quick as an investor, but if given time, the benefits of our model will be significant, sustainable and much further reaching. When you invest in Tanka, not only will you see financial returns, but you also are investing in the Pine Ridge reservation and Lakota people. You are investing in the land, fair wages, biodiversity, climate change mitigation and more. From the soil to the people, the impact is immense.
Thankfully, we are finding new-found stability, particularly over this past year. We have found a unique structure to support Tanka’s success. We rely on a three-legged stool that provides a blended capital solution to support the Tanka ecosystem: the Tanka Co-op, a producer-owned cooperative; Native American Natural Foods, a mission-based organization dedicated to sustainable, Native food sources; and Tanka Fund, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to supporting bison producers throughout Indian country.
Another important partnership is with Niman Ranch, a likeminded premium meat brand working to build a better system that benefits all along the food chain. This partnership is unique: this is not a merger or acquisition. Rather, Niman is providing technical support and supply chain development for Tanka. At the same time, Tanka will be helping Niman build more partnerships with independent family farmers, expanding their network of cattle ranchers and helping to develop a vibrant bison program.
Looking to the Future
We have also seen tremendous support from impact investors and foundations who see our regenerative agriculture approach as a meaningful way to support the Lakota people. I’m a second-generation Lakota woman leading this impactful company and I feel good about where we are going and the sustainable enterprise we are building. This is not a company that is in this for the short term. Our goals are long range and we are starting to recover our market share by adhering to our values and ensuring that our success extends beyond the sale of just our product, but includes being at the forefront of change and impact in Indian Country.
With a strong foundation established thanks to our three-pronged approach outlined above, we are buoyed for the future. As Covid-19 shows the cracks in the industrialized food system, the resilience of the Tanka model is more apparent than ever. Now is the time to invest in a better, regenerative food system.
Featured bison photo © Erika Larsen.
Article by Dawn Sherman, who brings over 25 years of business expertise and entrepreneurial skills to her role as CEO of Native American Natural Foods’ Tanka bar. A member of the Lakota, Shawnee and Delaware tribes, Dawn is keenly aware of the fundamental needs facing individuals at the community level on the reservation. Her South Dakota roots inform her decision making and she is dedicated to seeking improvements in the food systems that benefit the health and wellness of her indigenous community as well as the community at large. Dawn believes teamwork and meaningful collaboration are essential to success and looks to the operational Niman Ranch partnership as key to continuing the Tanka vision.
Previously, Dawn worked in key financial leadership roles in the automotive industry, increasing dealership portfolios as well as assisting in developing policies and procedures to streamline sales and financial efficiency.
She is a founding member of Tanka Resilient Agriculture Coop, a South Dakota collective dedicated to returning bison to lands, and improving the lives and economies of Native Communities. She is also a founding board member of The Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, an ecosystem of people and organizations committed to making sustainable ranching and farming a collective norm. She is also a board member of the Tanka Fund, a not-for-profit that supports tribal bison caretakers with direct grants for ranch planning, finance and operations. As the second generation of Native Leadership and as a Native woman, Dawn’s unique vision combined with her deep experience in the food industry, allows her the opportunity to give back to her own community and further her vision of food sovereignty for all.
About Native American Natural Foods, LLC
Native American Natural Foods, LLC, is focused on creating a family of nationally branded buffalo-based food products that are delicious and that promote a Native American way of wellness that feeds mind, body, and spirit. By adding value to traditional Native food products, using modern scientific methods and the least amount of processing possible, Native American Natural Foods innovates value-added products for the U.S. consumer marketplace. The Tanka Bar was responsible for creating the first meat snacking category in retail markets. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
About Niman Ranch
Niman Ranch is the largest farmer and rancher network in the Western Hemisphere to be 100 percent third-party-certified under the Certified Humane® program. Their community of more than 740 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers adhere to some of the strictest animal welfare protocols in the industry. Follow Niman Ranch on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.