Native American Natural Foods Builds Restorative Company

CEO says business important tool to change the face of modern day Indian reserves

Wednesday April 11, 2012 -- Camille Jensen

Karlene Hunter says she’s inspired each day as she witnesses the impact Native American Natural Foods is having on the Lakota people and their land.

The company launched more than five years ago on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota with a vision to create healthy, delicious and sustainable snacks that honored the past Native Americans lifestyle.

All products are made from buffalo, which are raised on open grassland, without hormones and have less fat and cholesterol than chicken, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Karlene With Tanka TeamBy creating buffalo-based products, Hunter says the company aims to reverse unprecedented levels of diabetes and obesity in Native Americans.

The products are also experiencing popularity among the general public.

Hunter says it’s Tanka Bites, bite-size buffalo and cranberry nuggets, won Editor’s Choice award by Backpacker magazine and the bites along with Tanka Bars, a buffalo and cranberry energy bar, are now on shelves at Whole Foods locations.

“We’ve been embraced by many different channels and we are very thankful for that,” says Hunter.

She says using business to change the face of modern-day reservations is what drives her and co-founder Mark Tilsen. The two have been exploring economic opportunities for Native Americans for more than a decade.

“Even small impacts have a large ripple effect on the reservation,” says Hunter.

For example, Native American Foods has created 18 jobs on Pine Ridge Reservation where the unemployment rate sits at 70 percent.

The company also sees opportunity to encourage more Native Americans to become buffalo ranchers, utilizing their land reserves while restoring the biodiversity of the prairie through the return of buffalo. They’ve partnered with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation to raise a pool of capital called the Tanka Fund to provide funds for startup Indian buffalo ranchers.

“If you aren’t in ranching currently, it’s extremely expensive to get into the industry,” says Hunter, adding demand for buffalo is growing tremendously while the average age of ranchers hovers near 60.

“We really need to get new blood in the industry and we would like to see Native Americans get into the industry more than they are.”

Hunter adds Native American Natural Foods’ long-term goal is to expand into new product lines and other reservations “so we are not just raising the boat for ourselves but for everyone.”

To learn more about Native American Natural Foods, click here.

This article written by Axiom News is part of a Social Venture Network series featuring the work of socially responsible business leaders.