When Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen started Native American Natural Foods in 2006, they had a vision as vast as the Great Plains themselves: to create a brand that could restore the buffalo to native lands and, in the process, regenerate the community, culture and economy of the Lakota people that live there.
The company, a B Corp. located on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, makes protein bars from a traditional Lakota recipe for “wasna,” buffalo meat cured with fruit such as cranberries to produce a flavorful, nutritious snack. The meat is sourced from Native American ranchers, and there are no nitrates or artificial ingredients. They named the product Tanka, a Lakota word that suggests an all-encompassing endeavor, as in “delivering your best with all your heart, mind, body and spirit,” according to the company.
The Tanka bars were a hit from the start, creating a brand new category in the food business. After a dip during the Great Recession, Native American Natural Foods was back to growing at more than 20% a month. Today Tanka bars are carried in over 6,500 retail locations across the U.S., including Whole Foods, R.E.I and Costco, generating $3.5 million in sales last year. That’s created jobs for the Lakota community and livelihoods for Native American buffalo ranchers.
With success came new challenges. Copycat brands arose, deploying similar imagery and marketing, although without any authentic connection to Native American culture. When two of those copycats were scooped up by multinational food corporations—Hershey paid more than $300 million for one competitor, and General Mills bought a direct knock-off for $100 million—the pressure was on.
“We were suddenly competing with some of the biggest, most funded multinational food companies in the world,” says Tilsen.
He and Hunter knew they had to build up their own war chest. They had received investments and loans from values-aligned organizations over the past decade, including Clearinghouse CDFI and the Native American Bank of Colorado. But they were woefully underfunded to compete with the likes of General Mills. One challenge: because Indian land is held in trust by the government, it can’t be used as collateral for a loan. And self-professed impact investors were scared off by the heavyweight competition, says Tilsen.
So they turned to the community, launching an equity crowdfunding campaign on WeFunder that they hope will appeal to investors who support their mission. Individuals can invest as little as $100.
In many ways, it’s a fitting match. Tilsen helped start a community-owned radio station that broadcasts to five reservations, and Hunter serves on the boards of a Native American CDFI and business association. (The two also have a direct marketing company). But the idea of shared ownership goes to the very heart of Native American culture. It is, says Tilsen, “the basic structure by which tribal people have survived.”
The name Lakota itself means “friendly, united, allied.”
At a June event in Colorado showcasing B Corps raising capital on WeFunder, Hunter told the audience: “Our investors are part of our team and part of our family.”
The crowfunding campaign is part of longer-term strategy to build partnerships, says Tilsen. “It’s very humbling to have every day people risking their money that they worked hard for. We have an obligation to succeed.”
He and Hunter and their team are working hard to do that, he says. They’re creating new Tanka bar flavors and products and upping their game. “We’re very focused on updating our marketing and packaging, and on social media and growing the brand into new categories,” he says.
The stakes are high for the pioneer of the meat and fruit snack category—and one of the few authentic Native American brands of any kind.
“Is this going to be another industry that is colonized, or can we create space for native brands to grow and prosper?” says Tilsen. “We’re not doing this for some big ego play or to get rich. We think [Native American Natural Foods] could be a method of empowerment that allows people to take back control of their economy and their land.”