Left to right: Mark Tilsen, Danaj Edmond and Karlene Hunter promoted Native American Natural Foods' jerky and energy bars at the NASFT Fancy Food Show. Again this year, Native American Natural Foods's team will present its products at the 56th Summer Fancy Food Show in New York City, June 30-July 2, 2013. (Courtesy Native American Natural Foods)

Karlene Hunter Turned Buffalo Jerky-Cranberry Bars Into a Successful Business, Improved Native Health and Brought Jobs and Economic Growth to Pine Ridge

Michelle Tirado

When Karlene Hunter, Oglala Sioux, along with her long-time business associate, Mark Tilsen, launched Native American Natural Foods in 2007, she never imagined the company’s single product, the Tanka Bar, a buffalo jerky and cranberry bar, would be sold and consumed anywhere but tribal communities.

Six years later, the Kyle, South Dakota, company touts an expanded product line that includes bite-sized, stick and summer sausage versions of the bar and buffalo hot dogs and is sold in more than 4,000 stores across the nation, with REI, Whole Foods and Costco among them.

Karlene Hunter (Courtesy Hunter)Hunter, CEO, never dreamed that she would be accepting awards for the product, the company and herself, but the accolades keep coming, like the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade’s (NASFT) Leadership Award in the “Vision” category that she was selected for and will receive on January 22 at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco.

For Hunter, it has always been about the company’s mission: spurring economic development on the Pine Ridge reservation, promoting healthier eating habits and restoring the connection between Indian people and the sacred buffalo.

In early January, Hunter talked to Indian Country Today Media Network about the NASFT award, Native American Natural Foods’ success, the Tanka Bar recipe and what she envisions for the company’s future.

What was it about your vision that caught the judges’ attention?

Coming from the area that we come from, we really are social entrepreneurs. We have a triple bottom line. The dollar is important, but we are trying to create economic development with Native American Natural Foods—job opportunities—create a healthy lifestyle. Forty-four percent of our adult population has type 2 diabetes. You know, we are coming from a food desert; and to eat healthy, we really have to get back to eating traditionally, to become the nation we once were before we were put on the reservation. And [we also want] to create an economic viability of buffalo producing on our reservation. That is the reason we started the company. I think the judges understand the vision that we have. It is just not singular: Get in for the money, flip the company in three years and sell to one of the major food companies in the nation.

Who is the “consumer” of the Tanka Bar?

The running joke around here, it is anyone who eats real food. It is because we cross so many paths, so many channels. We have the athletes who use it for the protein. It is a good snack while you are working out, while you are training, while you are doing cross country. That is why we fit well in REI. Then we have the health arena. It is great for diabetes. It gives you sustainable energy. A lot of our diabetes programs, when they are doing dialysis, give it as a snack to their patients. Head Starts across the country are using it for their children instead of giving them a sugar snack in the afternoon. The kids love it. Because of the cranberries, it has a sweetness to it.

The original Tanka Bar (Courtesy Native American Natural Foods)

Who created the recipe?

I would love to say that we created it. We did not create it. Our ancestors did. But when we were looking at products to get us back to a healthy nation again, we looked back to when we were hunters and gatherers and had very healthy lifestyles. It is based on a traditional recipe called wasna, and we still use it today on the Pine Ridge reservation.

How far back does it go?

As far back as stories around here go. Back in the early 1800s, a lot of the trappers would come and we would trade, and they documented that they had wasna and that it would keep for years. They were amazed because they could carry it anywhere and it could be shipped through month-long passages.

How high are your standards?

They are based on Lakota values. Our nation has some pretty high values, so our standards are pretty high. When you look at the industry standards, our standards have to be high. We have to be twice as good to be recognized in this field. … We are in Whole Foods. We are a Whole Foods-approved product. They are kind of the standard for the natural industry.

How many people do you employ?

We have 18 and are looking at growing. We don’t manufacture here because our area is not conducive for manufacturing, so all of our jobs are career path jobs. We have social media directors. We have distribution managers, fulfillment managers and clerks. Any one of our people can walk out of here and go work anywhere in the world. When we are looking at creating economic opportunity in the third poorest county in the United States, with over 70 percent unemployment, we definitely want to create jobs.

Where are your products made?

We have two manufacturers, one in Hecla, South Dakota, and one in Greentop, Missouri. We had to find companies that stand by their corporate values. Our Tanka Bars are smoked for nine hours, so we needed facilities that could do large quantities of smoking as well as packaging and everything. And we wanted corporate partners that really have the same type of values that we do.

What is your vision for the company’s future?

We would like to have a major impact on the economy of the reservation. We would like to open up buffalo ag opportunities to Native Americans nationwide. We have created a fund called TankaFund.com. With the Tanka Fund, we are raising funds so that Native Americans can get into buffalo producing. Buffalo sales have tripled in the past several years. Buffalo producing is good for the environment, good for the economy, and we would like Native Americans to be able to participate in this industry. We also would like the company to be employee owned. We are taking steps in that direction now.

The latest in Tanka Bars: a spicy pepper blend. (Courtesy Native American Natural Foods)

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Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
Hi, I often wonder why some people say what they do, such as infering indians have such high standards, I'm damn near full blood, that's a story in itself. I have been to many reservations in my life time, as for me I see the drug and alcohol addictions rampant, both on and off the res, the suicide, murder and assault rates are extremely high, and mostly perpetrated by our own people, I personally have a son who has a large scar on his face, a gift from a fellow indian, also I have one son missing a kidney, another gift from 12 indians and over the summer my other son was stabed walking into a cub foods, a gift from another indian, so what up with your statement?

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I am proud of her accomplishments, her company and product. Congrats!!!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I am proud of her accomplishments, her company and product. Congrats!!!

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
You say you want to have a major impact on the economy on Pine Ridge? your product is not made anywhere near Pine Ridge.

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
A brother below makes the comment about some of our peoples. The problem is that these native people who are harming others is because they have the evil spirit of evil washichus in them. A number of native peoples have lost their way, have given up hope & sink into lives of wickedness, drunkenness, drugs, dishonorable ways & lives, etc. Our people everywhere have got to return to the ways of our ancestors that promoted family values, respect of oneself, ones elders, tribe & family. Where are the role models that all native children in the times of the ancestors used to have in their daily lives? Where are the elders, parents & relations that used to be part of a child's upbringing at? A person who doesn't know who they are, who their people are, what their people's culture is, etc. is a lost person whose spirit is restless & life is never in balance. Our ancestors knew this & we should bring these teachings back into our homes, our communities & our peoples lives. There was balance in life in those days. Each day was sacred & each new life celebrated by the whole village. There was so much interaction among members of a camp. The whole camp helped with raising the children in one way or another. The girls were trained how to cook, clean, care for children, etc., by the women till they took a man. The boys were trained by the men to become a complete man ready for being a warrior, a father, a hunter, a husband & a respected person in their community each day. Until these tried & true ways are again included in our lives there will be no changes we need in our communities & only more of the negative things of evil. Two Bears Growling Buffalo's Thunder