First Foods Redux: Native American Food Companies Promote Tradition and Innovation


Native American tribes have long shaped the food landscape in this country and many continue to be some of the most vocal advocates for sustainable food production and policies to promote better health for future generations. Below are three tribal nations working to preserve the land while building strong food businesses.

The First Local Food Movement

Much has changed since the ancestors of the modern day Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation first started growing food in Northern California’s Capay Valley. But one thing remains the same: The area is home to some of the best agricultural land in the world.

Organic and small-scale farming have flourished in the valley along with the local food movement—there’s even a Capay Valley Grown label for food grown in the region. For their part, the Yocha Dehe tribe still cultivates over 1,300 acres of farmland in the valley, about 250 of which are certified organic. An additional 1,200 acres of the tribe’s land holdings are in permanent conservation easements and the Yocha Dehe practice an array of sustainable farming techniques from crop rotation to drip irrigation, cover crops to integrated pest management.

But, unlike some of their neighbors, the Yocha Dehe’s history on the land is complicated. Even though members of the tribe were among the earliest growers of “local foods” in California, the Yocha Dehe have had to buy back parcels of their ancestral land in small increments, using profits from their Cache Creek Casino and Resort and the Yocha Dehe Golf Club.

Many Native American communities have a similar story. Legacies of violence and displacement have left tribes across the U.S. disconnected from the lands they once called home. This type of alienation from ancestral lands–and from farming–has contributed to significant problems: Native Americans have a higher rate of obesity and food insecurity than any other racial category in the U.S.

In spite of these challenges, tribes are promoting greater economic stability among their members and tackling health problems head on, both by preserving tribal food traditions of the past and developing innovative new ways to sustain land and community.

An Olive Tree Grows in California

In 2011, the Yocha Dehe people had the opportunity to buy an 82-acre parcel that wasn’t optimal for growing specialty crops like squash or berries. The Tribal Council opted to plant olives instead, as the trees can thrive on less than stellar land and aren’t nearly as water intensive as the almonds or wine grapes that are also popular in the region.

“Our ancestors taught us that if we take care of the land, it will take care of us. A focus on sustainability and environmental responsibility is at the heart what we do,” says James Kinter, Tribal Secretary of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation. “So, we have carefully considered the kinds of plants and crops that work best with our soil, climate and water supply challenges.”

The climate and soil in the valley are often described as Mediterranean for which olives are well suited. “Because they fit well, they can help us protect and sustain our land for future generations,” says Kinter.

The now 102-acre olive grove supplies the tribe’s hallmark Séka Hills olive oil, which bears the Patwin name for “the blue hills of our homeland.” Those hills are covered with trellises bursting with small, fruity arbequina olive trees.

In order to get the most out of their groves, the Yocha Dehe practice a modern technique called super high-density planting, which Spanish olive growers brought to the region in the 1990s. Whereas traditional olive orchards may have approximately 100 trees per acre, the tribe’s orchards boast up to 700 trees in the same amount of space.

Initially, the tribe aimed to sell to the larger bulk olive oil market, but then realized that they would have to send their olives over 100 miles to the nearest mill for processing. Rather than rely on the distant mill, the Yocha Dehe worked with an Italian manufacturer to build a mill that could handle the tribe’s modest but substantial olive output.

They soon realized that there were other olive producers in the area who could benefit from a local mill. The Séka Hills mill now processes between 25,000 and 32,000 gallons of oil per year and the tribe has begun contracting with local growers to encourage even more olive production in the region.

Three years in, the farming operation is subsidized by the tribe’s casino. But the Yocha Dehe hope to see that change in the near future. “We are…very mindful of how important it is to diversify economically as we work to build a strong future for our Tribe and its generations to come,” says Kinter.

While olives may not be native to California, today’s Yocha Dehe tribe is guided by their forbears’ philosophy of nurturing the earth and sharing with neighbors. The Séka Hills olive mill is a testament to that commitment, fostering a surge in olive production that promises to promote economic development for all the residents of Capay Valley in exchange for caring for the land.

Buffalo-cal

Members of the Oglala Lakota Nation have entered the modern marketplace using a food source that has long since called the plains of South Dakota home: buffalo. These grand animals used to roam in massive herds, but their numbers declined dramatically as colonization expanded westward. Since 2005, a company called Native American Natural Foods (NANF) has worked to replenish buffalo populations across the Great Plains by raising large, healthy herds on tribal lands.

The company uses buffalo meat in a range of products, including the Tanka Bar, an unusual energy bar that mixes buffalo and cranberries. Designed to provide long-lasting whole-food-based nutrition, the bar is available in major retailers, including Costco. Compared to other meats, buffalo is relatively low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and the company places a strong emphasis on minimizing processing, additives, and fillers.

But, the Tanka Bar is about more than simply providing a healthy alternative to sugary energy bars. According to NANF, the word “Tanka” evokes the notion that all people have the power “to extend a helping hand for those in need, to defeat racism, to protect our Mother Earth, and to love all others on our planet.” The company started Tanka Bar with the goal of curbing the dual issues of malnutrition and obesity on the reservation. Now, NANF has grown into a thriving food business.

NANF got its start through a loan from Lakota Funds, the first Native Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in the U.S. Native CDFIs provide small business loans, investment advice, and technical assistance to low-income Native American communities.

Lakota Funds has invested heavily in economic development on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the Oglala Lakota Nation live, and their efforts have had significant impact. Between 2000 and 2009, median income rose nearly 50 percent on the reservation, compared to just 27 percent across South Dakota. Pine Ridge also saw a 31 percent increase in jobs over the same time period, whereas the job growth rate statewide was just under 7 percent.

Despite these successes, only 16 percent of the $2.1 billion in agricultural revenue generated on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation went to Native American farmers and ranchers in 2007. That’s because the Bureau of Indian Affairs leases over half of Pine Ridge land to non-tribal farmers, who often have no interest in investing in tribal communities.

Given these challenges, Lakota Funds’ support for businesses like NANF is crucial to help tribes—and buffalo—thrive. Everyone who works at the company is Native American and the business invests a portion of its profits to the Tanka Fund, which aims to protect a million acres of grasslands to sustain buffalo populations.

Seminole Pride

The Roe family had been growing tangerines and oranges in groves across Florida for four generations, pressing the state’s signature fruits into fresh juices under their Noble Juice brand. Looking to expand their business in the late 1990s, Noble Juice approached local restaurants who might be interested in putting their juices on the menu. Unfortunately, the company lacked the brand recognition and marketing expertise to break into the market.

Fortunately, the Seminole Tribe had experience in developing brands and building extensive distribution channels across the state through their Seminole Pride Beef and Naturally Native fresh fruit businesses and they saw an opportunity to partner with Noble Juice. What started as a simple marketing arrangement grew into a long-standing relationship, and the Tribe now owns a majority share of Noble Juice.

Part of the Seminole Tribe’s expertise comes from their history with the land in Florida. John Dembeck, Chief Operating Officer of Seminole Brand Development, notes that the Tribe has long been a major fruit grower in the state, and that they’ve “been in the cattle business since 1521.” Water preservation and land stewardship have been core elements to the Tribe’s agricultural legacy, and the Tribal Board looks for other producers in Florida who champion sustainability.

The Roes’ experience in crop diversification and organic cultivation made them a perfect match for the Board. Noble Juice also produces its own biodegradable bottles, as an effort to minimize the company’s impact on the South Florida watershed. “The Tribe finds [both tribal and non-tribal] small family businesses that struggle to compete,” says Dembeck, “and builds their brands to be competitive in the marketplace and celebrate who they are as a people.”

The Tribe has helped grow family-owned food and agriculture businesses from citrus to cattle, recognizing that long-term economic sustainability requires investment in several areas of production at once. But their partnerships are about much more than profits. Dembeck emphasizes, “There’s an ethos among the Tribe that says, ‘When we first planted, we didn’t do it to sell—we did it for the people.’”

Tribal food companies play a vital role in the U.S. food system. Businesses like Séka Hills, Native American Natural Foods, and Noble Juice not only celebrate indigenous food cultures, they also strengthen and support local food systems for non-tribal farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs alike. For that, we can all be thankful.

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  1. Andrea Flack
    Thursday, November 27th, 2014
    Many people all over the world have long recognised that the First Nations of America have the attitude toward Mother Earth that is absolutely vital for our health, sanity and spiritual growth. We have to learn from them.