"Currently, the Great Plains are dominated by cattle and by industrial farming, which are not sustainable," says Mark Tilsen, co-founder of Native American Natural Foods. "These practices drastically reduce biodiversity, while grazing activity by buffalo actually encourages it. Industrial agriculture increases soil erosion, while the natural prairie grasses that buffalo prefer hold the soil in place."
To help restore the prairie and the buffalo, Mark Tilsen and Karlene Hunter started a green business that would grow the buffalo population to supply the raw materials for their protein-rich snack bars.
We asked Mark to tell us more about the relationship of the buffalo to the prairie, how his company benefits the Oglala Lakota, and the meaning of the name Tanka...
Green America: What does your business do and what is your most popular product?
Mark Tilsen: We manufacture Tanka buffalo and cranberry snack products from our home base in Kyle, SD, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Our most popular product is the Tanka Bar Traditional, a buffalo and cranberry snack bar based on a traditional Lakota recipe for a dish called ‘wasna.’
What makes your business green?
Mark: Our policy is to integrate as many green principles, practices, and processes throughout Native American Natural Foods as possible.
Our products are naturally cured and preserved. We use only meat processors who follow the natural model and do not use nitrites or nitrates. This both reduces resource-use and provides health benefits. We strive to purchase our buffalo close to where we use them to minimize the environmental impacts from hauling them cross-country.
We currently buy our buffalo from a variety of sources. Our goal is to buy 100-percent Native American grass-fed buffalo raised following the wild model. This means that the buffalo are born and raised in large open prairies eating natural grass from prairie land that has never been tilled or planted. Animals are rotated to simulate the natural migration of buffalo as much as possible. This helps them to eat the different grasses during different grazing sessions, similar to how they have grazed throughout history. The ability to follow a wild management model is limited by modern fences and a limited land base.
We focus on using buffalo byproducts in the manufacturing process – parts of the animal that would otherwise go into a landfill. We are pioneers in this activity, and we continue to seek markets for additional byproducts to minimize waste. We verify this by knowing our producers and processors, by touring their plants, and by knowing the current and historical uses of buffalo parts. We have also sponsored research on ways to minimize landfilling of buffalo byproducts.
Our Tanka cartons are made from 100-percent recycled paper using 100-percent wind-generated energy, so we’re very proud of that. We also recently implemented new packaging for our products that has allowed us to reduce the packaging material by more than 50-percent.
There is no recycling on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and we cannot recycle paper anywhere in our region. Therefore, we bring bottles, cans, and glass to Rapid City from our Pine Ridge office for recycling.
What did you do before you started your own green business?
Mark: Native American Natural Foods, LLC, was founded by me and Karlene Hunter. We are veteran social entrepreneurs who have been doing community development work on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for more than 25 years.
Our goal is to build a sustainable brand that is strong enough to have a positive impact on the economic, social, and nutritional needs of the Oglala Lakota people.
Where did the name Tanka come from?
Mark: The word Tanka can be all-encompassing. It can mean from large to largest to all of natural creation. The name was chosen with the help of the community to honor the buffalo and recognize that this is a big project. It is the biggest, most "Tanka" idea we could come up with to change our situation on the reservation.
The story behind our brand is the story of a people who once had a sustainable economy based on the buffalo that was destroyed by the US military. And now we seek to bring the buffalo back so the people may live. The Lakota people believe they are a sister nation to the buffalo – that as long as the buffalo survive, so will the people.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Mark: Native American Natural Foods is located on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota (Sioux). Our mission is to heal the people and our Mother Earth by innovating new food products based on the traditional values of Native American respect for all living things and living in balance with Mind, Body, and Spirit.
Our greatest challenge is access – particularly access to funds, markets, and expertise. We are located in one of the most economically and geographically isolated places in the United States. The Pine Ridge Reservation, which is our home, is the poorest area in the country. We’re about 90 miles from the nearest population center, Rapid City, SD, which has 60,000 residents. We are 350 miles from any larger town. These realities require that we act creatively, but they also remain a challenge.
While 90 percent of our staff are tribal members who are based on the reservation, we have reduced our company’s environmental impact by stationing Tanka products at various food warehouses around the country. This allows us to reduce the shipping time and energy consumption needed to deliver Tanka products to our retail partners.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Mark: I think it has been worth it each time I hear from someone whose life has been improved by the Tanka Bar. Or when a mother tells me that her child loves the bars and is healthier. Or when an elderly Pine Ridge resident stops me to just say “thank you for bring us the Tanka Bar.” But the best is to see the success of our employees who have never had this type of opportunity. Seeing them grow and succeed does make it all seem worth it.
What's the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Mark: The good news is we are still seeing market growth in natural and organic foods. The most hopeful sign is that young people are taking a leadership role in the green economy.
What advice do you have for green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Mark: My best advice is to trust your instincts. Listen to everyone, but, most importantly, listen to your gut. You know more than you think you do. Do what is right for your employees and community first. The rest will follow.
We call ourselves a learning organization because we do not believe in mistakes. They are just more learning that we need to go through.
What are you most excited about for the future?
Mark: In the future, I see America’s Great Plains, where the communities and highways are fenced off, and millions and millions of acres of land are set aside for the buffalo to live wild. By restoring buffalo to the Great Plains, I see American grassland returning to its critically important role of producing protein and oxygen. A place where everything from plant diversity to animal diversity is restored to a healthy balance, and the oceans of grass wave in the wind like they have done for thousands of years.
We understand that buffalo restoration is prairie restoration. This guides our focus on the buffalo as a cornerstone of our business. We verify this through an understanding of the historical role of the buffalo in its ecosystem, and through modern science’s research on buffalo eating and grazing habits, prairie composition, and grasslands restoration.
The buffalo and the Great Plains were made for each other. No species is more suited to the huge prairie ecosystems than the buffalo. At Native American Natural Foods, we seek to restore this indigenous species by creating markets for its products. As a result of increased buffalo production, we also seek to restore prairie ecosystems, which are the most imperiled in the United States.
Currently, the Great Plains are dominated by cattle and by industrial farming, which are not sustainable. These practices drastically reduce biodiversity, while grazing activity by buffalo actually encourages it. Industrial agriculture increases soil erosion, while the natural prairie grasses that buffalo prefer hold the soil in place. Compared to cattle, buffalo create less damage to stream banks, use forage more efficiently, and create less stream pollution. They are also hardier than cattle and require less feed from crops. This reduces the resource-use and pollution caused by current farming practices.
What green product or service could you not live without?
Mark: I can’t live without Sister Sky lotions. They’re another Native company with earth-friendly products.