Indigenous energy bar takes off in U.S., soon to hit Canada

An energy bar produced by an Indigenous company is taking the U.S. natural food market by storm, and will soon hit shelves here in Canada. Tanka bars combine buffalo meat and dried fruit — a combination which might surprise some, but has been a staple dish in First Nation diets since before colonization.

It's a small company 'with a huge mission,' says president of Native American Natural Foods

Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen are the owners of Native American Natural Foods, a company based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that makes the energy bars that are made of buffalo and cranberries. (The Associated Press/Chet Brokaw )

An energy bar produced by an Indigenous company is taking the U.S. natural food market by storm, and will soon hit shelves here in Canada. Tanka bars combine buffalo meat and dried fruit — a combination which might surprise some, but has been a staple dish in First Nation diets since before colonization. 

"Nine times out of 10 when [people] put it in their mouth, their eyebrows go up, they get a smile on their face, and they say 'wow,'" said Mark Tilsen, president of Native American Natural Foods, based out of Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota.

"When they bite into the bar, juice from the cranberries gets released into the meat, and you have a taste explosion in your mouth … it's unlike anything else people have eaten."

The unlikely mixture is inspired by wasna, a Lakota word meaning 'all mixed up.' Tilsen says the acids in the fruit works as a natural preserve for the buffalo meat.

In Canada, there is a similar Cree recipe called pemmican, which also means 'all mixed up.' 

Key to survival of Canadian fur traders 

George Colpitts, author of Pemmican Empire and history professor at the University of Calgary, says that wasna and pemmican first appeared five thousand years ago, originating with Plains First Nations.

According to Colpitts, the success of fur traders travelling east depended on the introduction of pemmican to their diets.

"The fur trade, traditionally out of Quebec, was dependent on … a ration of ground-up corn, a little bit of pig fat, and some dried peas," said Colpitts.

As they continued west, fur traders got further away from their food supply, and rations were running thin.

"They were starving as they reached lake Winnipeg, and it was the fur traders that learned from Indigenous people about pemmican."

Colpitts says that berries weren't always incorporated in pemmican, but it was often preferred, since it dramatically improved the taste.

Too innovative

When the company first launched Tanka bars in 2007, they were faced with the difficult task of trying to figure out their market, since they were the first to launch a meat-based energy bar.

Tilsen says grocers were confused about where to place the product, unsure of whether it belongs in the meat or snack aisle.
The unlikely mixture of meat and berries in Tanka bars is inspired by wasna, a Lakota word meaning 'all mixed up.' (Courtesy of Tanka Bars/Facebook)

"My answer was, yeah we're going to put it in all those places — it belongs in everybody's shopping cart no matter which category we can get it in," said Tilsen.

"It's kind of funny, when you're developing a product, all consultants and advisors say be innovative, be original, but then after you do it, they say … we don't know where to put it."

Since launching, other companies have followed their lead, creating their own versions of meat energy bars.

Earlier this year General-Mills bought Epic Provisions, a meat bar initially produced out of Texas. And Hershey Chocolate has launched a meat bar line called Krave. 

Record year

Last year Native American Natural Foods made $5 million in sales, and the bars are available through some top retailers, including Whole Foods and Costco.

In addition to creating the bar, the company wants to give back to the Lakota Nation. Currently 25 per cent of the buffalo meat used is sourced from Indigenous hunters, but the company hopes to bring that number to 100 per cent over the next couple of years.

The company has even been in talks with Indigenous buffalo farmers in Canada.

Boosting buffalo population

Tilsen says that Native American Natural Foods is a small company, "with a huge mission — it's more than just a bar, it's a huge project."

The company has also started the Tanka Fund, which supports efforts to boost the number of buffalo in the United States.

"We want to return one million acres of land to buffalo, and incorporate that buffalo into the lives, diet and economy of Indian people."

Under the Tanka Fund, the company will support young Indigenous hunters who want to get into the industry.

The fund not only supports Indigenous economies, but also promotes a return to a more healthy, traditional Indigenous diet that consists of fruit, vegetables and buffalo meat.