Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Tanka, an innovative snack bar created by Lakota tribe members on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is now battling for space on grocery shelves with meat bars produced by food conglomerates—including the Epic buffalo bar, which was recently acquired by General Mills. (Photo: Katie Hunter)

Healthy Snack Invented on Indian Reservation Now Faces Stiff Corporate Competition

Pine Ridge reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States. But hope is rising about the success of a buffalo-and-berry snack bar invented there, which is turning some of its profits back to the community.

Jay Walljasper

The Pine Ridge Indian reservation is not the first place you’d look for good news about creating a new kind of economy that works for everyone. 

This corner of South Dakota includes several of the poorest counties in America, according to census figures. Ninety-seven percent of Pine Ridge’s Lakota Indian population lives below the federal poverty line, reports the American Indian Humanitarian Foundation.  The unemployment rate is well over 50 percent.

Yet these dire conditions—compounded by public health problems like diabetes and addiction—have not snuffed hope.  Growing numbers of Pine Ridge residents are embracing their own traditions as a path toward healing and economic self-sufficiency. 

The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation, for instance, is moving forward on an ambitious set of projects, including a worker-owned construction company, a worker-owned IT firm and  a farm to combat lack of access to nutritious food.

Even more surprising, Pine Ridge is home to a fast-growing natural foods food company, which created a healthy new product in the booming snack food industry. Native American Natural Foods was inspired by wasna (a concoction of cured buffalo meat and berries) to invent the Tanka bar—which is now for sale at Whole Foods, Costco, Amazon.com, natural food stores and other groceries across the nation.  Available as a protein bar,  a meat stick and in bite-size bits packaged with Lakota-style trail mix, the all-natural snack features flavors like spicy pepper, apple orange peel, jalapeno and slow-smoked original.

Tanka sales reached $5 million last year in 8000 stores, according to Forbes, and the company currently buys 25 percent of its buffalo from Native American growers, with the goal of 100 percent.

“The for-profit company—which actually is making a profit—recently gave equity to its employees,” the magazine continued, “…and they’re persevering despite growing competition from other companies selling buffalo meat with marketing campaigns that evoke a Native American theme, if not their authenticity.”

Tanka is now battling for space on grocery shelves with meat bars produced by food conglomerates—including the Epic buffalo bar, which was recently acquired by General Mills. Epic is an Austin-based company that originally produced the vegan Thunderbird bars, whose packaging claimed each one was “shaman blessed”.  (Chocolate maker Hershey Foods also recently bought Krave, a line of snack meat products.)

That’s the dark cloud on the horizon for this Indian Country success story, says Native American Natural Foods co-founder Karlene Hunter, a Lakota who has spent her entire life on Pine Ridge.  “We created the [meat bar] category but now we’re fighting with a food industry giant on something that is our centuries-old recipe.”

Hunter is certain that Tanka can compete based on the quality of their products, but is concerned that Epic’s deep pockets could outdistance them in reaching new stores and customers.  “We don’t have $20 million to throw at this like a big company.”

“We started this company to regenerate our community, not just to make a profit,” she explains.  “Last year we gave five percent of our company to the seven employees that have worked with us to build the company. We pay our staff good salaries for this area. We buy our wild rice from the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota.  We buy our cranberries from a company that buys from tribes in Wisconsin.” 

“Tanka can change people’s perceptions of Pine Ridge and what’s possible here. We came up with a brand right here on the reservation that changed the whole meat snack industry,” says Native American Natural Food’s other co-founder Mark Tilsen, who has lived on Pine Ridge on and off since he was 16. Although not Lakota, he came to the reservation to join his father, who was a lawyer defending Native American activists involved in the Wounded Knee occupation in 1973. His children and grandchildren are all enrolled tribal members.

Hunter and Tilsen first partnered to create Lakota Express, a Pine Ridge-based communications company that created fundraising campaigns for Oglala Lakota College and other Native American causes, which they still operate.  The idea for Tanka bars arose in a meeting with Lakota ranchers, who sought advice on finding more customers for their buffalo.

“We want to do something that no one has done before: create opportunity for people who live here,” Tilsen notes. “To offer people the chance to become owners and step into the position of being a manager. When you have a brand like ours, you do things that competitors don’t do.”

Three years ago, Native American Natural Foods launched the Tanka Fund to help Native Americans communities nationwide return buffalo to their land as a way to create community wealth, restore the environment and improve their diets.  They introduced a new product to support the project, a turkey-buffalo-cranberry jerky bar, for which ten percent of all profits will go to the fund.  

Tilsen and Hunter believe Tanka’s mission builds loyalty among their customers, who can help regenerate Native American culture by enjoying traditional Lakota food.  But they worry competitors also wants to evoke those positive associations too. 

“In their social media, Epic calls customers their ‘tribe.’ I even read they named their dog, ‘Lakota,’” Hunter reports. “That’s not cute, it’s patronizing—and misleading.”

While their competitors can shell out big bucks for marketing campaigns or discount prices to gain market share, Native American Natural Foods has some distinct advantages too.

They’ve been supported by philanthropic groups like the Northwest Area Foundation and non-profit organizations like the Democracy Collaborative, which fosters worker cooperatives and other forms of community wealth building across the country through initiatives like its Learning/Action Lab, which supports a cohort of four Native American communities.

And then there are the growing numbers of people who want to know all about the food they eat and products they buy.  “A lot of younger customers, especially, want to drill down into where the food comes from,” says Tilsen. “They are searching for the truth, not just a story cooked up by the marketing department. A lot of our customers have those values.”  


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper

Jay Walljasper, editor of OnTheCommons.org and author of "All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities, and Everything Else That Belongs to All of Us" and "The Great Neighborhood Book," writes widely about cities, community, sustainability and travel. On The Commons is a commons movement strategy center.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·


PG&E Charged With 11 Felony Counts—Including Manslaughter—Over 2020 Zogg Fire

"PG&E has a history with a repeated pattern of causing wildfires that is not getting better," said Shasta County District Attorney Stephanie Bridgett. "It's only getting worse."

Brett Wilkins ·


'Hold My Pearls': Debbie Dingell Lets Marjorie Taylor Green Have It Over Abortion Rights

The Michigan Democrat engaged in a verbal altercation with the far-right Republican lawmaker from Georgia on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building.

Jon Queally ·


Dems Who Opposed Pentagon Cuts Received Nearly 4x More Donations From Weapons Makers

The latest passage of the NDAA "is particularly strong evidence that Pentagon contractors' interests easily take precedence over national security and the public interest for too many members of Congress," said one critic.

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo