Native Americans across the US reclaiming cultural cuisines with businesses built on traditional foods

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For many residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, getting to a supermarket requires a two-hour drive to Rapid City. It’s an expensive trip for people living in the third poorest county in the US. Many residents have no access to transportation, leaving only one option: on-reservation convenience stores that stock processed, long-shelf-life foods.

To combat these poor nutrition options, many tribes are reclaiming traditional foods as a way to correct severe health and economic disparities. All across the country, Native American entrepreneurs are combining traditional values with common-sense business strategies to tackle hunger, unemployment and unsustainable food production practices.

Pine Ridge didn’t become a food desert by itself. Along with other tribes throughout the country, the Oglala Sioux endured generations of war, forced removal and assimilation policies that dismantled traditional economies and food systems.

The reservation system prompted dramatic changes in the diet of Native peoples in the US. Restricted or prevented altogether from traditional hunting and agriculture practices, many tribes were forced instead to accept government food relief programs that distributed basic staples heavy on salt, sugar and fat. The rapid change in diet, aided more recently by fast food and more sedentary lifestyles, have contributed to an epidemic of diabetes, obesity and other health problems in Indian Country.

Like others who have turned to local, sustainably produced foods to effect social change, Native Americans are embracing the so-called food sovereignty movement, a term coined in the 1990s by the international peasant group La Via Campesina, to restore culture and economic autonomy.

“There’s a cultural revolution going on in Indian Country, reconnecting people to the rituals of where food came from, why food is sacred,” said Mark Tilsen, co-founder of the Pine Ridge-based food producer Native American Natural Foods.

Tilsen and his business partner, Karlene Hunter, are at the forefront of this revolution. Launched in 2007, their business is now one of the most successful Native-owned food companies in the country. Its primary product, Tanka Bar, is a line of energy bars made from prairie-fed, antibiotic-free buffalo meat and based on a traditional Oglala recipe. The natural and organic market research firm Spins ranks it as the third best-selling jerky in US natural supermarkets.

According to Tilsen, tanka means large or great, and conveys the idea of tremendous or generous acts for the benefit of others. The name is a vehicle for telling not only the story of the company, but of their people’s struggle for survival and self-determination after the government oversaw a mass extermination of the buffalo in the late 19th century. As their main food source was driven to near extinction, Plains peoples were forced onto reservations.

Tilsen and Hunter didn’t set out to build a better energy bar. They wanted to support Native buffalo producers who were working to restore the sacred animal to the prairie. And they wanted to boost the economy and health of Pine Ridge. Read More…


“This energetic movement is really taking stock of how food impacts the health of Native peoples, but also the economy and social existence of Native communities,” said Raymond Foxworth, vice president of grant making and development for the First Nations Development Institute (FNDI), which supports tribal economic development programs.

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