Where the Buffalo Roam

A pair of entrepreneurs look to alleviate poverty and turn their community into an economically prosperous place with their business, Native American Natural Foods.

On the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota Sioux and a place that was once described by then President Bill Clinton as the “epicenter of poverty in America,” a pair of seasoned entrepreneurs are working to turn that around by creating wealth and a future for their community with their fast-growing business, Native American Natural Foods and its flagship product, the Tanka Bar.

“Everything we do here is about creating value,” said company president, Mark Tilson, a lifelong supporter of Native American causes and longtime partner with company CEO Karlene Hunter, the 2007 SBA Small Business Woman of the Year for South Dakota, with whom he started Lakota Express, the only reservation-based Native American-owned direct marketing firm in the nation. Value, for this company, is about more than money. It is about their place in the community and the effect that their company has on that community and the world.

“We have 22 employees, which makes us one of the larger private employers on the reservation,” said Tilson. “More than those 22 families with direct income, we offer opportunity, training, vision and hope to the community, which we are trying to transform into an economically prosperous place.”

That is a tall order. The Pine Ridge Reservation has a population of about 38,000 and a staggering 80 percent unemployment rate. The largest employers are federal, state and tribal entities such as the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Oglala Lakota College, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Indian Health Service. The Oglala also operate the Prairie Wind Casino and the White River Visitor Center near the Badlands National Park. The tribe has a Parks and Recreation Department, engages in guided hunting, cattle ranching and farming, and operates a radio station, KILI-FM in Porcupine. However, prosperous private businesses that employ as many as Tilson and Hunter do are still few and far between. Still, that has not deterred the makers of the Tanka Bar. In fact, it has pushed them to do more.

The question, when they got started, was whether they could build a national brand and drive the economic benefits back to their community. For Tilson, that meant beginning with the community. “We looked for a raw material that came from the community and what we came up with was buffalo.” It took a year of development, to test various combinations. According to Tilson, Wasna, the food that Tanka Bars are based upon, is traditionally a combination of buffalo meat and chokecherries, but the tasters they had preferred a combination of buffalo meat and Wisconsin cranberries, the inclusion of which not only sweetens the meat, but also preserves it. Once they had a product that worked — the kids who tried it called it “buffalo candy” — it was time to go to market.

From a small start on the reservation to appearances at Native American events and rodeos and then an entrée into the health food industry, the Tanka Bar has been a fast-growing phenomenon. The company has opened another production facility in Idaho to be able to keep up with the orders from their distributor, National Specialty Sales, and their retailers across the country. “We use social marketing and new media, such as MySpace and Bebo,” said Tilson and we have had great success attracting a young, health-conscious audience.”

Another advantage is, believe it or not, the economy. When times are hard, consumers become pickier about the products they purchase and Tilson believes that socially conscious businesses tend to benefit from that since consumers want to do business with companies that care for and give back to their communities. Of course, it also helps to have a great product, and for Native American Natural Foods, that is the Tanka Bar.

The Tanka Bar is more than just a snack; it is really a healthy energy bar. The product is 100 percent natural, has 70 calories, no artificial preservatives or trans fats and is very low in cholesterol and sugar. Moreover, it is simple — buffalo meat, cranberries, herbs — and in that simplicity, Tilson sees value. “Simplicity increases the product’s value,” he said, “both nutritionally and financially.”

In addition, according to Hunter, the Tanka Bar introduces an entirely new food product category: The meat-based energy bar. “Tanka Bars don’t taste medicinal or like a candy bar,” Hunter said. “They are tender, flavorful and good for you. We’re convinced that once people taste them, they’ll choose pure meat protein-based energy over ‘enhanced’ cereal bars every time.” It is already a big hit on the reservation and wherever people find it.

A social consciousness and a sense of mission, a good product and solid marketing, they all come together in Native American Natural Foods to create success, recession or not. “If I was to give advice to a young entrepreneur,” said Tilson, “it would be to figure out what you think of as success, stick to it, and watch your three bottom lines: People, product and mission. Build your brand and drive the benefits back to your community.”

For more information on Native American Natural Foods and Tanka Bars, visit tankabar.com. —Charles Cooper

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