September 26, 2020
Written By: Andy Greenman
Dawn Sherman didn’t envision the impact she would make becoming the CEO of Native American Natural Foods’ Tanka Bar. As a second generation Lakota woman, she brings both her understanding of the food industry and a deep connection to enacting change in Indian Country.
After growing up in Rapid City, Sherman then spent 25 years in the automotive industry before returning to South Dakota and her Lakota roots to head Native American Natural Foods’ (NANF) Tanka bar line of products.
Founded in 2007 by Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen, Tanka Bar quickly rose to prominence in the healthy snack market as the first commercial meat and fruit bar. Their goal was to bring traditional native foods into the wider marketplace, completely sourced and supported by Native peoples. The bar’s ingredients were based on wasna, a traditional meat and berry food that goes back hundreds of years. Hunter and Tilsen worked with community members to create the Tanka brand, which was a commercial success, prompting many imitators.
As their success began to strain the cash-strapped startup, they realized that a larger picture was necessary to support the growing enterprise. Their three tier approach includes the Tanka Food Co-Op, Native American Natural Foods, and the Tanka Fund, a non-profit supporting producers. These three avenues help to build a sustainable business model that in turn invests in its people. Additionally, a new innovative partnership with Niman Ranch, a network of more than 700 independent farmers across America, allows NANF access to technical support, while providing Niman Ranch access to producers of high quality meats. This partnership gives NANF the potential to add other Native food products to their offerings.
Sherman is a founding member of the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance and has elevated Tanka Bar’s profile through the Niman Ranch partnership. This new collaboration has led to her rise in the regenerative food movement, participating in the annual Niman Ranch Resiliency Panel with author Michael Pollan.
Tanka Bars, along with the Tanka Fund, has inspired and supported a new generation of entrepreneurs, all centered back at the heart of the Native community, bison. Pushed toward the brink of extinction, the movement to conserve these animals, especially on the Pine Ridge reservation, has many benefits, both culturally and economically. “Because they are keystone [species], the more people learn to love to eat bison, the more we can bring them back. They help with the Great Plains, they help with the carbon sequestration,” says Sherman. The winning combination of regenerative agriculture’s impact on the environment and economy is dependent on the bison.
Food sovereignty has always been important to Native Americans, and Sherman’s work at NANF represents the modernization of what the Lakota have practiced for thousands of years — the use of knowledge to be resilient and provide a vibrant future for the Pine Ridge community. With Sherman at the helm, there are many good things on the horizon for NANF.