Tanka Fund Supports the Buffalo Economy

“The last time we had a functioning economy, it was a buffalo economy,” said Karlene Hunter, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe who co-founded Native American Natural Foods in 2007.

For Hunter, entrepreneurship is 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.

Tanka Fund has made more than $70,000 in grants to Native buffalo producers since launching its grantmaking program in 2016. Grants are for land, animals and infrastructure, like fencing and wells, along with basic needs, such as truck repairs and gas.

That’s a big leap from the time Native American Natural Foods launched. A decade ago, only three national buffalo producers existed in the United States. None were Native-owned.

“It’s very hard to get financial backing [for buffalo production] when you live on Native land, because you’re going up against three different regulation sources: the federal, state and tribe,” Hunter told Native Business Magazine™.

Beyond that, buffalo ranching needs are unique and innumerable. “For instance, buffalo fencing is a lot different from cattle fencing. It could cost up to $6,000 for a mile of fencing,” Hunter explained.

Tanka Fund has additionally teamed up with other Native organizations, such as Eighth Generation. Together, the companies created “The Return” wool blanket, celebrating the return of the buffalo and the renewal of reservation economies. For donating $200 or more to help return buffalo to Native communities, contributors receive the blanket as a gift.

Tanka Fund and Eighth Generation collaborated to create The Return wool blanket. Sonja Holy Eagle, trained by her grandmother in painting buffalo hides to record the stories of the people, designed the petroglyph-style rendering of a winter count to tell the story of the buffalo’s loss and return. (Courtesy Native American Natural Foods)

The Tanka Fund serves another purpose, as well—bringing healthy food to reservations. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, for instance, is classified as a food desert.

“If we can get more ranchers producing local buffalo meat and getting it on store shelves, what better avenue to health and financial stability?” Hunter asked.

“When we started the company, people were unaware of how nutritious buffalo is. It’s better for you than chicken; it has more Omega-3s than an avocado,” Hunter added.

The healthful protein is clearly climbing in popularity. Back in 2007, buffalo cost $2.86 per pound. Today the price of buffalo exceeds $7 per pound, Hunter said.

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,” Hunter said.

To this day, buffalo continues to offer nutrition and sustenance to hunters, athletes and the common (wo)man. “Buffalo was and still is a part of our traditional recipes,” Hunter said. “It’s high in protein, low in calories, and provides sustainable energy throughout the day.”

While providing traditional fuel to contemporary warriors, Native American Natural Foods is claiming substantial shelf and e-commerce space through 8,000 retailers, including Amazon, Whole Foods, REI and Costco. Learn more about how the company is staying competitive in a market dominated by large industry conglomerates in the Native Business Magazine article “Leveraging Social Media.”

The company also makes the only nationally distributed Native American food product certified by the Intertribal Agriculture Council as “Native-made.”

Hunter sees continuous and increased collaboration of Native businesses—empowering “Native made” within Indian Country as well as externally—as key to building stronger Native economies and lives. “I believe as we grow and work together, we’ll start to end poverty in Indian Country,” she said.

Native youth at a pow wow checking out the Tanka Bars (Courtesy Native American Natural Foods)