Native American Natural Foods’ is helping Indian reservation ranchers like Charles “Bamm” Brewer access markets through a new partnership with Niman Ranch that links with Tanka Fund and Tanka Regenerative Agriculture Coop. Photo courtesy Arlo Iron Cloud, New Food Economy

Native Sun News Today: ‘The brotherhood of the buffalo’

PINE RIDGE – Charles “Bamm” Brewer is one of only a handful of Native American buffalo ranchers able to take part in the touted trend toward tribal economic development through food sovereignty. However, he says, he envisions more of his neighbors becoming involved due to a new partnership announced Jan. 24 by the reservation-based maker of Tanka brand bison snack foods.

Native American Natural Foods, the social enterprise that invented bison-and-berry Tanka Bars and Tanka Bites in 2007, announced the partnership jointly with Niman Ranch, a Purdue niche brand that fosters 740 family farms producing certified humanely grown livestock using sustainable and chemical-free practices without antibiotics or hormones.

The partnership is strictly a mutual-mentoring agreement, with no money changing hands. It aims to help the small majority-Indian-owned company in Kyle, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, stay independent and boost the local food market by building a Tanka Regenerative Agriculture Coop (TRAC), for tribal members to receive guaranteed meat sales contracts with both companies.

TRAC is the next step for tribal livestock growers, once they become qualified with the support of technical advice and grants from is doing at his ranch west of Pine Ridge.

“I know it will help out tribal members who are interested in raising a herd of buffalo, because the tribe can’t do it on their own,” Brewer told the Native Sun News Today. “It’s going to take individual families” for the reservation to feed itself.
Tanka Bar: TANKA: The Company and Mission

Brewer switched from cattle to bison husbandry some 25 years ago, when the Oglala Sioux Tribe began helping members start buffalo ranches by providing stock from its herd.

At the time, they could sell a heifer calf for $2,000, and so about a half-dozen families got involved. But merely five years later, the market crashed, and they could get only $200 for it. Most of them abandoned the cause.

The tribal government still will provide calves to members annually, as long as the ranchers give back 40 percent of the number after each ensuing calving season. The cause remains: a return to the Lakota traditional primary source of sustenance, health, culture and resilience – the American bison.

Brewer stuck with it, recalling the words of a former director of the tribal herd at Oglala Parks and Recreation Department: “I was told that for every Indian cattle rancher there should have been a buffalo rancher instead.”

Then the youngest Indian buffalo rancher at age 25, he went on to employ his family members and others in the operation. “For us it was about the brotherhood of the buffalo, the spiritual relationship. We just think buffalo are so awesome, we want to have them around,” he said.

It helped that his family has its own 800-acre spread, so, unlike most Indian cowboys, he doesn’t have to pay a yearly grazing lease fee.

That challenge is what holds back a lot of Indian livestock operations, according to Mark Tilsen, Sr., who is the co-founder and president of Native American Natural Foods. The undercapitalized grower is forced to sell each year’s calves at auction to a feedlot middleman just to pay for the lease.

According to the 2017 USDA Agricultural Census, nearly 90 percent of the total sales produced on tribal land comes from non-native producers, who account for 65 percent of all active farms and ranches on Indian reservations.

“In extreme poverty, the colonizer controls your means of production, so that native folks are exploited,” Tilsen told the Native Sun News Today. “Now dynamic leaders are trying to change that. We’re just trying to create an opportunity.”

TRAC can provide a better deal to the grower through a direct contract with the wholesale meat buyer. Tanka needs the lower-end cuts, Niman Ranch the higher end. The producer has a guaranteed price and more control of the income flow.


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