As a people, we are self-sufficient when we can feed ourselves.
That’s one of the baseline measuring sticks and intentions of entrepreneurship: creating a sustainable business that empowers you to provide for yourself and your family.
For many Indigenous entrepreneurs in the food industry, self-sufficiency takes on a deeper meaning. It applies to more than just their business, it emboldens self-determination of Indigenous cultures and peoples through food.
As the recently released documentary “Gather” showcases, Native professionals and entrepreneurs play an essential role in the modern-day Indigenous food ecosystem. They are foragers, fishers, farmers, ranchers, chefs, educators and restaurant owners.
Fred DuBray, owner and operator of DuBray Buffalo Ranch on the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation in South Dakota, is one example of self-determination in action.
“We had a self-sufficient economy, and it was all centered around the buffalo,” DuBray says in the film. His ranch is helping to restore what genocide nearly decimated. In the late 1800s, the U.S. government slaughtered buffalo to near-extinction.
The DuBray Buffalo Ranch is a testament to Indigenous resilience through entrepreneurship in the agriculture and food industry.
There are dozens of other examples of trailblazers for food sovereignty across Indian Country. At Native Business, we’ve featured numerous Native foodpreneurs whose businesses are revitalizing ancestral foodways, oftentimes while supporting other Indigenous food producers.
To spotlight a few: 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. And 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.
Native Business has also taken a strongly business-centric approach to interviews with Native entrepreneurs in the food and beverage industry — all with the intention of offering a blueprint or inspiration for entrepreneurial innovation and success.
For instance, on the 6th episode of the Native Business Podcast (recorded live at the inaugural Native Business Summit hosted in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in May 2019), guest host Mika Leonard (Miami Tribe) converses with a panel of accomplished Native American food and beverage professionals who weigh in on the Indigenous food movement that has taken off and shows no signs of slowing down.
Native Business has spoken to the Diné founder of Chief Burgers about capitalizing his food truck operation on the Navajo Nation. We’ve interviewed serial entrepreneur Bill McClure, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation and CEO of Native American Coffee, about e-commerce, intellectual property, website domains and Native buying power. We’re revealed how a Shoshone-Bannock entrepreneur funded Bison Coffeehouse in Portland. We’ve shared the values-first business advice of Melinda Williamson, the Prairie Band Potawatomi entrepreneur responsible for Morning Light Kombucha. We’ve revealed the rich entrepreneurial journey of Lance Gumbs, who opened a lobster roll joint on the Shinnecock Reservation on the East End of Long Island in 2017. And we’ve given substantial attention to Native American-owned breweries, including Bow & Arrow Brewery — which bought a canning line in the midst of the pandemic, Skydance Brewing Company and Seven Clans Brewing.
While the private sector is critical to Indigenous food sovereignty, the power of a Tribe’s ability to feed its own people cannot be overstated.
That’s something Chairman Mark N. Fox envisions for the future of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (MHA) Nation. He sees his Tribe generating its own power, raising and consuming its own food, and exporting its own goods. As Chairman Fox mentioned several times in March 2019, when the Native Business team flew to the Netherlands with a delegation from the MHA Nation to meet with the Dutch Ministry and operators of the most innovative agricultural technology in the world, “How can we be truly sovereign until we can feed our own people?”
Native Business created the short film “Food Sovereignty,” highlighting the MHA Nation’s trip and plans to convert compressed natural gas from its numerous oil wells to power sustainable greenhouses. The film, which debuted at the inaugural Native Business Summit in May 2019, is available for streaming on Native Business’ YouTube channel.
Tribal Food Sovereignty
Reflections on food sovereignty have taken on new gravity in recent months, as the coronavirus pandemic has further exacerbated food deserts across the nation.
Despite the financial constraints caused by the health crisis, several Tribes are making strides toward building more self-reliant economies that grow organic food and feed their people.
For instance, the Yurok Tribe (also featured in “Gather”) recently acquired property that will be the home base for a burgeoning food security program.
On the Choctaw Indian Reservation, the Tribal enterprise Choctaw Fresh Produce is reducing the Band’s reliance on shipping food thousands of miles to reach its commercial kitchens and residents. The program provides fresh fruit and vegetables to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ enterprises, Tribal citizens as well as the public through local farmer’s markets, mobile markets and subscription services.
Meanwhile in Nebraska, Ho-Chunk Farms announced a $1.3 million purchase of 231 acres of farmland in January 2020. That milestone is also creating jobs. Ho-Chunk Farms’ goal is to increase Tribal employment in farming and reduce contracted work.
And throughout the pandemic, the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has managed to adhere to social distancing at its meat processing plant to continue operations and protect Tribal self-sufficiency. “Having our own processing plant allowed us to somewhat control the meat supply in our community. We never ran out of meat in our stores and were able to keep our community supplied,” Chris Roper, the Quapaw Nation’s agricultural director, told Native Business.
READ MORE: Quapaw Nation Keeps the Meat Supply Moving
At the end of the day, food is our fuel, and health is wealth. We must invest in our well-being and sustenance as Indigenous peoples. And critically, we must develop self-sufficient and sustainable food systems to support our people and future generations.
While Tribes may excel in certain industries, we remain dependent if we rely on the government or external avenues for food sources. We need look no further than our ancestors for demonstration that we are competent at cultivating thriving economies with generative food systems.
And it’s pivotal that we do not overlook the substantial and necessary contributions of Indigenous entrepreneurs at every step of the “food chain” from foraging, growing and ranching, to production, sales, service and delivery.
Through food, we heal by reconnecting to our ancestral wisdom. We nourish and grow in health and spirit. We fortify ourselves as sovereign individuals, cultures and Tribal Nations. When we reclaim control of our food systems, we persevere and self-sustain. Through food sovereignty, we self-determine our own futures.