Raising the Bar: Native-American-Owned B Corp Tanka Bar Restores Land, Lives, Livelihoods, & Culture

If you only have two minutes, click here for a highlight from the interview.


 

Cofounded by CEO Karlene Hunter and President Mark Tilsen, Native American Natural Foods is based on Pine Ridge Reservation in Kyle, South Dakota (Oglala Lakota County).  The company's line of Tanka products is based on the traditional Lakota recipe that powered Lakota Sioux warriors for centuries. The company's first product, launched in 2007, Tanka Bar, was the first snack bar to combine meat and fruit for the national market.  The company was created to help combat obesity and diabetes on the reservation and to provide opportunities for employment and economic development in the Native American community. Additionally, proceeds from the company's products support the Tanka Fund, which is helping to return buffalo to the land, lives, and economies of Indian people.

 

A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Karlene Hunter has an MBA from Oglala Lakota College and over 25 years of experience in educational and economic development on Pine Ridge.  Over $25 million has been raised under her leadership – including raising the funds for the establishment of the first library on the reservation and the creation of new college centers in each of the nine districts on Pine Ridge.  The recipient of numerous awards, she serves on the Board of Directors of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development and previously served on the Board of Directors for the Native American Rights Fund, the National Indian Business Association, and the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce.    

Also a recipient of numerous awards, Mark Tilsen has over 25 years of experience in nonprofit fundraising, marketing community development, and 18 years in special events marketing and productions.  A lifelong supporter of Native American causes, he began working as a volunteer in 1973 for the Wounded Knee Defense Offense Committee (cofounded by his parents) and has since honed his skills coordinating award-winning, database-driven direct marketing campaigns for Native American educational and environmental organizations.  A serial social entrepreneur, Mark Tilsen has co-founded several successful community organizations and businesses, including:

  • KILI Radio, the largest indigenous community-owned radio station in North America.

  • The Black Hills Alliance. a coalition of Native and non-Native Americans that had a major impact on changing the environmental policies and practices in the Black Hills.

  • Direct Expressions, the company that launched the first direct marketing campaigns for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and Oglala Lakota College.

  • Direct Events, now the largest independent music promotions group in Austin, Texas.

  • Manager of Indigenous, the first Native American musical group to have a Top 10 hit on radio since the '70s.

  • Lakotamall.com, a web portal providing Internet market access to small businesses and non-profit organizations serving Indian Country.

  • Lakota Express Inc., the only reservation-based Native American-owned direct marketing firm in the nation.

  • Maz, Inc., a talent management group based in Minnesota.

Some highlights from Erin’s interview with Karlene & Mark include:

  • How a Lakota “give-away” celebration launched Tanka Bar into a national company

  • The creativity and resilience of the Lakota people at Pine Ridge Reservation – despite the unyielding systematic oppression and exclusion from economic opportunity informing their current status among the top 3 poorest counties in the U.S (an unemployment rate of ~70% and ~$5600/year average per capita income)

  • The ecological benefits of buffalo on the land & how prairies are one of the largest carbon sinks in the world (apart from rainforests and oceans)

  • The transformative impact of Native American Natural Foods/Tanka Bar: simultaneously regenerating an endangered species, regenerating the prairieland of America’s Great Plains, and regenerating Lakota culture and economy

  • How Native American Natural Foods/Tanka Bar is the first enterprise in history to restore an endangered species through entrepreneurship, now with almost half a million buffalo in the lower 48 states today  

  • How the company is struggling to maintain their position in a category they created, the cultural appropriation that’s involved in that struggle, and the importance of supporting and sharing the authentic, transparent story behind the Tanka Bar brand

 

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Erin Axelrod is a Partner at LIFT Economy, helping to accelerate the spread of climate-beneficial businesses, specializing in businesses that address critical soil and water regeneration. She is an avid ecologist, grassroots organizer and regularly forages for wild food in her home in rural Sonoma County. LIFT Economy is an impact consulting firm whose mission is to create, model, and share a locally self-reliant economy that works for the benefit of all life. You can follow Erin on Twitter @erinaxelrod or email her erin@lifteconomy.com.