2013 Leadership award winner for Vision

Karlene Hunter

Native American Natural Foods, Kyle, S.D.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, 90 miles from the nearest city and the third poorest county in the U.S., a team of Native Americans are revitalizing their nation by returning to their roots and believing in the strength of the buffalo.

By Denise Shoukas


Karlene Hunter, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, has spent more than 25 years working on educational and economic development on the Pine Ridge Reservation, an area with steep unemployment and rampant obesity. In 2007, Hunter and her business partner Mark Tilsen started Native American Natural Foods, producing a line of buffalo products made on the reservation, including Tanka Bar, Tanka Bites, Tanka Dogs and Tanka Wild. Their goal was to build a national brand strong enough to improve the diets, economy and lives of the 35,000 tribal members.

“More than 100 years ago, the Lakota [Indians] were put on this reservation and our whole way of life was taken away,” Hunter says. “The buffalo provided our economic needs. In order to revitalize our culture, we had to revitalize who we were and where we came from.” She continues: “We looked at all the land around us and thought, Why aren’t we using this?”

They started by creating a bar based on a traditional food called wasna, a pounded mix of dried buffalo meat and berries. “People said you have to use phosphates. Our people never did. We hit on how we can do it naturally by going back to our roots and relying on our buffalo nation again—on what we knew made us a strong, vibrant culture. Then we revamped it to today’s society,” Hunter explains. The buffalo are raised on open grassland, and there is no use of low-level antibiotics, hormones, drug residues or preservatives. The natural foods market took notice, and Hunter landed an account with Whole Foods in 2011. A year earlier, Hunter was named the recipient of the Cliff Adler Heart in Business Award, one of the natural foods industry’s top honors, proving that she and her team had made their mark.


To date, the company has created 18 fulltime positions, educated hundreds of young people about the history, sustainability and health benefits of lean buffalo, and put hundreds of thousands of dollars back into the community through the purchase of buffalo meat.

“These are career positions,” Hunter asserts. And each job has a ripple effect. “When you come from 70 percent unemployment, one job makes a huge dent in your community. We have ladies that are employed here who then hire babysitters. We’re turning the dollar over more than once.”

They’ve also created the Tanka 501c3, a charitable fund that allows consumers to directly support programs and activities that will help return buffalo to the Great Plains and bring renewed health and opportunity to Native American communities. “We didn’t create this business to get rich. We’re really trying to change our situation, our economy,” Hunter says. “We’re rising to where we began as a strong nation.”

Going Forward

Hunter believes in giving people opportunity. “They will grasp it and run with it. Without our people, our company would be nothing,” she says. Native American Natural Foods continues to grow and expand, with the company launching three new buffalo-based products this year. Hunter says the award belongs to everyone who works at the company. “They have really dug in and taken ownership of this.”

Learn more about the Leadership Awards and the other winners, honorable mentions and nominees at specialtyfood.com/leadershipawards.