Hunter Leveraged Her Experience to Grow Tanka Bar Into its Namesake: ‘Larger Than Life’

In the Lakota language, Tanka means “larger than life,” and that’s what the company is becoming.

Native Business previously interviewed Karlene Hunter about how she capitalized her Tanka Bar-making business in 2007. We share that original Q&A below. In July, the company received its first multi-million-dollar capital investment.

In 2007, Native American Natural Foods debuted its first food product, the Tanka Bar. Based on traditional wasna and pemmican, the Tanka Bar combines high-protein, prairie-fed buffalo and tart-sweet cranberries. The lean meat has provided fuel to Lakota warriors for centuries. “Our runners used buffalo and berries when they would go out on hunts; they’d pack it in a buffalo horn,” Karlene Hunter, co-founder of Native American Natural Foods, told Native Business. 

While providing traditional fuel to contemporary warriors, Native American Natural Foods is claiming substantial shelf and e-commerce space. In the Lakota language, Tanka means “larger than life,” and that’s what the company is becoming. Today Native American Natural Foods products are sold at more than 8,000 retailers, including Amazon, Whole Foods, REI and Costco. The company also makes the only nationally distributed Native American food product certified by the Intertribal Agriculture Council as “Native-made.”

Hunter and her business partner Mark Tilsen founded Native American Natural Foods on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation approximately 13 years ago. Launching a business goes a bit more smoothly when you know how to go about accessing capital, and you have prior business experience. 

A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Hunter previously founded Lakota Express (LEX), a full-service direct marketing company located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Hunter, who holds an MBA from Oglala Lakota College, also counts decades of experience working on educational and economic development on the reservation. 

Hunter and Tilsen, as well as family and friends, personally contributed additional equity financing. The business also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In terms of bank financing, Native American Natural Foods received was a U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)-guaranteed loan from First National Bank in Nebraska. The bank was previously involved with Hunter and Tilsen through lending to LEX, which established a sense of trust. 

Native Business spoke with Hunter about the financial resources she and Tilsen tapped to launch Native American Natural Foods in 2007. 

READ MORE: Meet Karlene Hunter, the Lakota Visionary Behind the Tanka Bar & a Native Business Top 50 Entrepreneur 

Co-founders Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen

1) When you came up with the idea for your business, what were your initial thoughts about how to capitalize it? 

We decided to use commercial loans since it is a for-profit business. We went after the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Small Business Women’s loan program and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Guaranteed Loan program.

2) What difficulties did you encounter with raising capital to start your business?

We did not have any difficulty raising capital as we had previous experience, we knew the bank Loan officers, and the federal program officers, because we ran a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) previously and had many connections.

3) Were you aware of any federal or Native American programs to help you finance your business, and did you feel that you had access to them? Did you take advantage of those programs? 

Yes, we did know the programs and took advantage of everything we could qualify for in the program.

4) Were you aware of any programs for Native entrepreneurs available in your community or through your tribe?

Unfortunately, there are not any programs available for entrepreneurs in our tribe, but we did have help with some of our infrastructure when building our building.

5) Did you feel like you had the appropriate amount of business and accounting training to provide you with an understanding of how to go about accessing capital?  

Yes, I have a MBA, which helped, and we ran Lakota Funds which offered training in those areas, so I taught and took some classes.

6) What avenue(s) did you ultimately use to fund your business, and knowing what you know now, what funding path would you recommend to other aspiring or emerging entrepreneurs? 

There are many funding paths that you can take, and SBA and BIA Guaranteed Loan programs are the first to explore. If you are doing business that helps benefit an area or groups of people, it’s good to look at PRI’s (Program Related Investment), but this will take some experienced financial people to look at the viability of the fit into your structure.  

There are many sources of financing, and you should seek out advice from experienced banks, entrepreneurs and federal agencies.

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

7) How did the process of raising capital to launch your business empower you as an entrepreneur?  

It validated that we had a good plan, and that people believed we were on the right track by funding the loan. That gave us confidence that we put together a good plan, could defend every aspect of it, and could get to work to pull it off.

8) How has access to capital changed over the course of operating your business? What additional business strategies have you used to help fund your business?  

It was relatively easy to obtain the initial loans, but it became very difficult to fund growth capital. We struggled to get additional working capital and marketing capital. In hindsight, we should have really went in for more on the initial loan and anticipated the future needs. We turned to outside investors to capitalize the growth.

9) What would your advice be today for entrepreneurs who are just starting to seek funding for their businesses? 

Research, Research, Research. Look at all the banks you can for best interest rates, amenities that go with doing business there, and establish a relationship with them. Look into all the Federal Programs you could utilize, as a CDFI or other organizations (such as National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development) that provide training in this area. Ask other entrepreneurs or the Chamber of Commerce in your area for advice.  Just do your homework to make sure you know what is available out there that fits your needs best.

10) What are some of the ways that Indian Country could improve its support for funding emerging entrepreneurs? 

Tribes could help:

  • Tribes could offer 1 year free leases to new businesses.
  • Give free marketing spots for new businesses for 6 months to a year in their publications.
  • Include Workman’s Comp, Life Insurance plans into their tribal plans for new businesses. 
  • Provide accounting set up/oversight to a business free for one year until they are established. 
  • Prioritize contracting with Native American businesses. 
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