Regenerating the Land and Native Communities With Bison

Jun 22, 2020 10:05 AM ET

by Dawn Sherman, CEO of Native American Natural Foods 

As the demand for meat continues to escalate during the COVID-19 Pandemic, the store shelves grow bare and the food supply system finally shows the cracks of a system of largess. I’m seeing how sustainable, smaller production models, like Niman Ranch, are succeeding and supporting the families who work the land and raise the animals. I’m reminded of how my Native people lived with a deep commitment to the preservation of our food and land. The question of what we must do to impact the future of a sustainable food system can be answered by listening to my elders who whisper: honor the sacred Buffalo. Yes, the answer is BISON.

Bison are at the heart of our Native community. I’m so glad to see that there is a newfound appreciation for their role as an important species for healing our lands and restoring natural balance.  I would like to share a true story with you about bison, my home reservation and a brand called Tanka. Tanka was founded in 2007 on Pine Ridge by owners Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen, who both embraced the lives and foods of the Lakota people. They looked to an ancient, indigenous recipe and helped modernize the bison and cranberry snack called wasna that we continue to use today in ceremonies and gatherings in a way that is restoring and regenerating Native lands, our people and our culture.

Traditional wasna is a pounded mix of dried buffalo meat and berries that has long been a mainstay of the Lakota culture. Loosely translated in Lakota, wasna means “all mixed up” and the mixture has sustained my people for generations. Mark and Karlene saw promise in wasna as a snack that could have mainstream appeal while driving demand for the bison. They worked with the community – elders, business people, and the youth – to create the brand named Tanka. Named for the Lakota word for “outstanding” or “great,” the Tanka Bar offered a powerful protein-packed on the go snack that created the meat bar snack category. The news of the Tanka Bar was first reported in the New York Times in 2007 and officially launched at a pow wow in 2008. By 2015 sales had exceeded $5 million and brought employment to 15 members of the Pine Ridge community and additional staff throughout the US. 

The Tanka Bar’s popularity and rapid growth brought out competitors who also saw opportunity in the new meat bar snack category. These new brands did not have our cultural connection to wasna, but they did have deeper pockets and the distribution network to grow quickly and reach markets we were not yet able to access. Over the last five years, we found ourselves nearly squeezed out of the marketplace, struggling to stay alive.

We realized that to build a regenerative agriculture focused business, we needed regenerative capital. Tanka is not a business that is going to get you rich quick as an investor, but if given time, the benefits of our model will be significant, sustainable and much further reaching. 

Read Dawn's full article and about their new partnership with Niman Ranch here 


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