56 The Costco Connection SEPTEMBER 2014
By Hana Medina
SOUTH DAKOTA’S PINE Ridge Indian
Reservation, home to the Lakota Native
American nation, is stunning. About 90 miles
southeast of Rapid City, the reservation sits at
the edge of Badlands National Park, sprawling
into bright green rolling hills that change colors with the seasons (and sudden bouts of
rain). Cows, wild horses and buffalo dot the
idyllic rural landscape.
But the land has a tragic and troubled history. It’s here where the massacre at Wounded
Knee took place. Oppressive laws and actions
have left the Lakota struggling with poverty,
unemployment and sickness.
Today, nearly half of Pine Ridge’s inhabitants live below the poverty line and 80 percent
are unemployed, according to Red Cloud
Indian School (
Many residents suffer from astronomical rates
of obesity, heart disease and diabetes, a direct
result of lack of access to fresh food. People
here have one of the lowest life expectancies in
the Western Hemisphere ( 48 years for men, 52
for women), not to mention high rates of
infant mortality, suicide and alcoholism.
It’s hard to fathom that these are living
conditions within the United States. But it’s
why Karlene Hunter, a Lakota nation member,
and her business partner, Mark Tilsen, who
has lived and worked with the Lakota Indians
since the 1970s, formed Native American
Natural Foods (NANF) in 2005. “We’re social
entrepreneurs who decided to get into the food
industry as a strategy for trying to improve the
community,” says Tilsen, president of NANF.
Hunter, NANF CEO, and Tilsen are try-
ing to ignite change through Tanka Bars, a
line of smoked buffalo and cranberry bars
that also come in sticks and bite-size squares.
They are based on a traditional Lakota dish,
wasna. Tanka means “large” or “great” in the
Tanka products are made with prairie-raised, grass-fed buffalo, which, according to
the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is leaner
than chicken breast, low in cholesterol and
high in protein, iron and omega- 3 fatty acids.
Free of gluten, nitrates, MSG and hormones,
Tanka products are a hit with health-focused
and Paleo-diet communities, and they’ve been
recognized and awarded by many publications
for their nutrition, quality and excellent taste.
NANF is a rare source of economic development and career opportunities at Pine
Ridge—not to mention they produce some of
the few healthful snacks on the reservation,
which is home to a handful of convenience
stores. Running a business in a rural area, far
from major shipping routes, presents huge
challenges. But Tilsen and Hunter are proving
it can be done.
“You’re not in it for yourself. You’re in it to
really impact all the different segments of our
nation, and that’s a good feeling,” Hunter tells
The Connection from her modest office,
which is decorated with pictures of family,
past and present: her granddaughter dancing
in a powwow, her grandmother in a class picture from an assimilation school.
Tilsen and Hunter, who both have
extensive social activist and marketing back-
grounds, started a handful of service organi-
zations on the reservation. Without any prior
food-industry or product-based business
experience, Hunter admits, they were like fish
out of water. “Our learning curve was huge,”
she says. “Everybody told us it would take $16
million to start a food company. And we
thought, ‘No way.’ We know how to market.
We’ve run companies before.”
Tilsen and Hunter quickly learned that
the well-funded marketing strategies of com-
peting food brands would force them to get
creative if their business plan was to leap off
paper. They did what they could with several
personal loans. “We collateralized everything.
We put everything up. We went around the
system to break into the system,” says Hunter.
It took two years to develop their product
and connect with the right business partners,
but Tanka Bars were finally released in 2007.
They were mostly sold in local stores and on
NANF’s direct-to-consumer website, expand-
ing to national stores in 2009.
Despite launching at the start of the
recession, the business gained traction, which
Tilsen and Hunter credit to the growing
health-food industry and social media marketing. Today, Tanka products are available in
more than 6,000 stores and online retailers.
Last year’s packaging and branding redesign—which lets customers read all label
information and see the item while keeping
the bars fresh for up to 24 months—boosted
sales by 140 percent.
Limited infrastructure and distance from
major shipping routes make it very expensive
Native American Natural Foods