For Native Foodpreneurs, Self-Sufficiency & Sustainability Have a Double Application

Christopher Ian Gladue’s business Pȃnsȃwȃn — meaning “thin sliced meat” in Cree — spread like wildfire across Alberta, then Canada, then internationally. (Pȃnsȃwȃn)

Native entrepreneurship is bolstering the Indigenous food movement across North America. 

For many Native “foodpreneurs,” self-sufficiency and sustainability apply to their livelihoods and business success, as well as to their impact missions. They’re committed to self-determining their own futures to be self-sufficient. Meanwhile, these Indigenous-owned food businesses serve to empower the sustainability and proliferation of Indigenous cultures and communities by reconnecting Native people with their ancestral foods, and in some cases, with their traditional foodways including harvesting and preparation methods. Several of these Indigenous business owners also support other Native American food producers and even entire economies, such as returning buffalo to Indigenous lands.  

A handful, among a myriad, of examples: 

  • Up in Canada, Pȃnsȃwȃn, Inc. is the first First Nations company in history approved to sell its traditional delicacies — smoked, dried buffalo meat — globally.
  • The Sioux Chef, which recently opened the Indigenous Food Lab in Minneapolis, elevates awareness about Native food systems and traditional food preparation. 
  • Tocabe dishes up culturally distinct food in Colorado while purchasing ingredients from Indigenous vendors.
  • Itality, a health-conscious food business founded by Jemez Pueblo entrepreneur Tina Archuleta, meets community need for fresh food and nutrition education.
  • Lakota entrepreneur-owned Leeway Franks & Leeway Butcher honor the Indigenous value of utilizing the whole animal.  
  • Native American Natural Foods, the maker of the infamous TANKA Bar based on a traditional pemmican recipe, supports the traditional buffalo economy.
  • The Choctaw brothers-owned Symbiotic Aquaponic builds customized backyard and commercial aquaponic farming systems for growing organic food that gives communities sovereignty over their own food production. 

For a deeper dive into these businesses, read on. 

Native Delights Inc. and Pânsâwân Traditional Dry Meat

“Epic” is not an exaggeration for the entrepreneurial journey of Christopher Ian Gladue. A member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, he spent his teens living on the streets of Alberta, Canada. Today he is the founder, President & CEO of Native Delights Inc., and Pânsâwân Traditional Dry Meat, employing some 30 to 40 people, and distributing his traditional-smoked, dried buffalo meat worldwide.

Gladue debuted Native Delights, his Edmonton-based Indigenous cuisine service, in 2012—gradually growing his operation from a self-built concession stand to food truck to restaurant dishing out aboriginal comfort food. Native Delights also offers catering services, boasts two new kiosks in Edmonton, and operates food trucks in summer months.

Come 2015, the ever-hungry entrepreneur sought to create something more. An epiphany hit him that year, while watching his mother hang dried meat. He instinctively knew that was his next calling. After seeking an Elder’s guidance and blessing, he introduced Pȃnsȃwȃn Traditional Dry Meat, made solely of two ingredients: buffalo and smoke. Gladue even recreated traditional smoking at an indoor facility in Leduc, Alberta.

Little did he know interest for his Pȃnsȃwȃn — meaning “thin sliced meat” in Cree — would spread like wildfire across Alberta, then Canada, then internationally. Today, he ships orders to France; the United States — from Hawaii to Florida to New York to Montana; and all throughout Canada. “It’s really been a blessing,” he says.

Pȃnsȃwȃn, Inc. is actually the first First Nations company in history approved to sell its traditional delicacies globally. Gladue worked closely with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to meet standards for national and international distribution.

READ MORE: 3 Tips From a Serial, Cree Entrepreneur Whose Pânsâwân Business Is Thriving Worldwide 

Christopher Ian Gladue hails from the Bigstone Cree Nation in Wabasca, Alberta. “My father [Bernard Gladue] is Cree and my mother [Jacqueline Masuzumi] is from Ft. Good Hope, Northwest Territories,” Gladue says. Today Gladue counts a growing family of his own. (Courtesy Gladue)

The Sioux Chef

Food is at the heart of cultural reclamation, says Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota founder and CEO of The Sioux Chef. The  James Beard Award winning cookbook author and entrepreneur is playing a vital role in the revitalization of Indigenous foodways — most recently, through his team’s opening of the Indigenous Food Lab inside Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

The Indigenous Food Lab is a professional, classroom kitchen that expands on The Sioux Chef’s return to pre-colonial foodways. The Sioux Chef brand is a multifaceted empire: food truck, catering business, nonprofit, educator and incubator for a growing league of Native chefs. 

Sherman and co-owner Dana Thompson’s nonprofit, NāTIFS (North American Traditional Indigenous Food Systems), is responsible for the Indigenous Food Lab, which will continue the nonprofit’s mission through educational videos, training and classes. 

“NāTIFS will drive sustainable economic empowerment and prosperity into Tribal areas through a reimagined North American food system that also addresses the health impacts of injustice,” The Sioux Chef brand states. “The act of recognizing this is the first step toward healing generations of ancestral trauma for many.” 

The educational initiative and professional kitchen serve as a live training center for Indigenous food research, preparation and service. The lab shares ancestral wisdom and skills such as plant identification, gathering, cultivation and preparation of Indigenous ingredients.

READ MORE: Indigenous Food Lab Opens at Minneapolis’ Midtown Global Market 

Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota co-founder of The Sioux Chef (Courtesy The Sioux Chef)

Tocabe

For more than 11 years, Tocabe, an indigenous eatery, has served up culturally distinct food in Colorado.

Counting two locations plus a food truck, Tocabe is grounded by a unique philosophy: “Native first and local second.” That means the restaurant is ingredient-driven and supports Native vendors across the country. 

Additionally, Tocabe (“blue” in Osage) favors a boutique-hotel style approach to the restaurant industry, meaning each location is distinct, with local, Native-made art decorating its interiors. Pre-COVID-19, Tocabe also engaged its local community through events and often hired Indigenous musicians to perform. 

READ MORE: A Decade After Launching Tocabe, Osage Entrepreneur Ben Jacobs Is Just Getting Started 

When the Coronavirus pandemic hit the nation, Tocabe tried everything to continue providing service to its community and vendors.

“We closed indoor dining mid-March after laying off 85% of the company,” Osage co-founder Ben Jacobs told Native Business. 

Fortunately, the company secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan to help sustain its workforce and operations.

READ MORE: Securing a PPP Loan Helped to Power Tocabe’s Reopening 

Ben Jacobs, the Osage founder of Tocabe: An American Indian Eatery (Photo by Rachel Greiman, Green Chair Stories)

Itality

Look no further than Tina Archuleta, a member of the Jemez Pueblo, and owner of Itality: Plant Based Wellness, for an example of Native entrepreneurship aligned with traditional values, such as reverence for Mother Earth and Indigenous wisdom. When speaking with Archuleta, she consistently returns to her core values — from advancing Tribal and food sovereignty to uplifting healthy eating as a form of self-respect. 

From an early age, Archuleta was fascinated with the healing arts and community wellness. Raised on the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico (where she also calls home today), Archuelta recalls, “I myself went through a multitude of tribulations growing up — obstacles maybe we’ve all faced in our lives,” she says. “So my life went in the direction of wellness and healing.” 

“People want healthy food, and they want to learn how to prepare healthy food, to better their lives,” she continues. 

The gregarious entrepreneur grew her clientbase organically, offering catering, nutrition consultation, doula services and more. Today Archuleta regularly caters for the Notah Begay III Foundation and the Native Entrepreneur in Residence Program, a business incubator and accelerator offered through New Mexico Community Capital. Archuelta also counts the American Indian College Fund as a client.

READ MORE: ‘Itality: Plant Based Wellness’ Meets a Need for Fresh, Nutritious Food in Indian Country 

Tina Archuleta (Jemez Pueblo), founder of Itality: Plant Based Wellness

Leeway Franks & Leeway Butcher

When the coronavirus pandemic barreled across the nation, and shelter-at-home orders took effect, the entrepreneurial values of nimbleness and grit came into play for Lee Meisel, a Lakota butcher who owns and operates Leeway Franks and Leeway Butcher in Lawrence, Kansas. The sister shops operate next door to one another, bringing all-natural, humanely-raised meats from small, local family farms to market. 

Meisel launched Leeway Franks in 2015, serving up frankfurters, bratwursts and sausages, all made in-house. Leeway Butcher debuted in December 2018 as a full-service, whole-animal butcher shop and retail store. The businesses were hugely successful with minimal expense needed for advertising or marketing. (Roughly 90% of their business stems from social media promotion.) 

READ MORE: 3 Questions With Lakota Butcher and Entrepreneur Lee Meisel 

Meisel has always been conscientious when it comes to running a lean business. He values not only mindfulness of expenses and budgeting to sustain and grow operations and staff, he believes in being attentive to detail and honoring every facet of a process, a business, a life (including animal life). 

“There’s a parallel between indigenous values and resourcefulness — not wasting anything, and making sure that you are doing the best job that you can,” he told Native Business, drawing a parallel between finances and running a “nose-to-tail” butcher operation that utilizes every part of an animal. 

“We have small, individual muscles that we can isolate and retail at a much more reasonable price — more value-added items,” said Meisel, noting that the COVID-19 crisis has caused issues in the meat supply chain, namely a bottleneck on the processing side, and thus soaring meat prices. Most processing plants are operating at 50-60% capacity to adhere to social distancing requirements, and that slow-down leads to a slew of backups and problems — most noticeably for consumers, price fluctuations. 

But Meisel has an advantage. “That’s one of the upsides of being a whole animal butcher shop. We have access to things that a larger grocery store doesn’t,” Meisel said. 

While Meisel still sells the prime cuts — ribeye, New York strip, filet mignon, etcetera — he also educates customers about lesser-known and equally tasty cuts of meat. “We’re able to provide people with a wholesome, all natural, local product,” said Meisel, reflecting on the difference between mass-produced meat sold at grocery stores and what he sources from small, local farmers. 

Yet simply offering a quality product is not enough amid a pandemic. As an entrepreneur, Meisel has had to think outside of the box every step of the way. 

First off, he started offering carry-out, curbside pick-up and no-contact delivery. Secondly, he built his own online marketplace (forget those exorbitant fees to DoorDash and Uber Eats). Thirdly, he embraced the knowing that change is the only constant. 

“The ability to adapt and change quickly, and being flexible with your model” is pivotal, Meisel said. “These last few months have really taught us that you need to adapt to survive.” 

The ways that all entrepreneurs show up may shape whole industries for decades to come. “We’re writing the history book on this right now,” Meisel said. “And the world’s watching.”

READ MORE: Lakota Founder of Leeway Franks and Leeway Butcher: ‘Adapt to Survive’ 

“As an entrepreneur, you realize, it doesn’t stop. You’re always thinking about how things can be optimized or improved,” Meisel said. (Courtesy Lee Meisel)

Native American Natural Foods / TANKA Bar

“The last time we had a functioning economy, it was a buffalo economy,” Karlene Hunter, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe who co-founded Native American Natural Foods (NANF) in 2007, told Native Business. Her Native American-owned and -operated company produces the popular TANKA Bar, based on traditional wasna and pemmican.

For Hunter, entrepreneurship was an avenue to empower Tribes and Natives to enter the modern-day buffalo market. Native American Natural Foods’ nonprofit arm, Tanka Fund, has once again made buffalo production a viable revenue stream for people on Native lands.

In July, NANF announced a multi-million-dollar equity capital investment that will power the growth of the company forward. “I welcome our investors who have the courage and innovation to break the economic isolation of the reservation and move with us into a new economic future,” said Dawn Sherman, CEO of Native American Natural Foods. “We celebrate the vision that will return the bison to the lands, lives and economies of Native communities.”

READ MORE: Native American Natural Foods Closes on Multi-Million-Dollar Equity Capital Investment 

Tanka’s recipe is based on wasna, a traditional meat and berry food eaten in the Great Plains for hundreds of years.

Symbiotic Aquaponic

While the business side of aquaponics is a new frontier, the agricultural system of growing fish and plants together in recirculated water dates way back to Tenochtitlan, the former Aztec empire (and modern-day Mexico City). Miles of intricate canals, known as chinampas, wove throughout the ancient city, built with layers of lake mud and dead plant matter that allowed for the cultivation of at least seven crops annually.

Today the chinampas style of agriculture itself is experiencing a resurgence, and Choctaw brothers Kaben and Shelby Smallwood are leading the way.

The enterprising brothers launched Symbiotic Aquaponic in 2012 with little more than a dream, and a $4,000 investment from the Choctaw Nation to test the waters. Those funds went toward building their first aquaponic system in a greenhouse at Kiowa Public Schools in Oklahoma.

“It was a labor of love,” recalls Kaben, an economist by trade. “We worked without pay and without any guarantee of success.”

Today Symbiotic Aquaponic designs and builds customized backyard and commercial aquaponic farming systems that can grow United States Department of Agriculture-certified organic food, while reducing water usage of traditional farming by up to 99 percent.

READ MORE: An Aquaponic Farming Dream Grows Green 

Choctaw brothers and founders of Symbiotic Aquaponic Shelby (left) and Kaben Smallwood (right) stand beside their aquaponic systems. (Courtesy Symbiotic Aquaponic)

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