The Meaning of the Buffalo to Our People

By Karlene Hunter, CEO of Native American Natural Foods

This article was originally published in B the Change, which exists to inform and inspire people who have a passion for using business as a force for good in the world.

The ceremony was almost complete. My granddaughter and grandson had been so solemn and patient standing in the hot sun in the beautiful traditional clothing that their mother, my daughter Stephanie, had labored over so carefully. Now, they were starting to shift a little.

But there were a few final rituals before Fallen and Jake would be free to run and play with the other children. The guests lined up and servers passed by with bowls filled with wasna. Each guest took a little and ate it quickly. A few more songs and prayers, and the ceremony was over. And yet again, we Oglala Lakota had celebrated another important event with the help of our sister nation, the Buffalo.

Wasna, a pounded mix of dried buffalo meat and berries, has long been a mainstay in our culture. Loosely translated in Lakota, wasna means “all mixed up.” No one knows the name of the first Lakota to make wasna, but the basics of preparing the dish have been passed down, generation to generation. Warriors and hunters would pack wasna into a buffalo horn, which they could take on the trail for weeks at a time.

In 2006, when my business partner, Mark Tilsen, and I decided to create the Tanka Bar, a real-food bar based on this most natural of recipes, we didn’t fully grasp the challenge of turning a traditional food into a consumer product without additives or preservatives. Armed with questions, we sought out the experts on wasna in our community on the Pine Ridge Reservation. What we discovered was a recipe with simple ingredients but an exacting process.

Expert Advice

According to Kay Red Hail, an elder known as Auntie Kay, a title of respect, the secret to wasna is that it preserves itself. “The first time I remember tasting wasna, I was 3 or 4 years old,” she said. “My grandma told me it is special food. That you have to eat it. It is not just something to throw away.

“When I was older — 5 or 6 — my other grandma said it was considered sacred because it was used for naming and our sacred ceremonies. That’s why when a medicine man goes to sacred sites, they bring wasna as an offering.”

Auntie Kay said the best wasna comes from choke cherries beaten with a special stone, which gives them a special flavor, and made into dried patties. The patties are then mixed with “bapa,” or dried buffalo, and a small amount of buffalo kidney fat.

“The only place I know of to get the stones you need to make wasna is in the Wind River (Wyoming),” she said. “We went with the Arapahoes and they showed me which stones were the best. Granite stones were the best. They don’t chip and after being in the water so long, they smooth out. You try and find the roundest ones. You find one that is rounded on one side and flat on the other and find another stone that will fit with that one.”

To prepare the meat, Auntie Kay warned that the one thing you don’t do is wet the meat that you want to dry. “It causes mold or it won’t dry like it’s supposed to,” she said. “You get a big piece of meat and cut it open, like you’re unrolling it in layers. My mother would hang her bapa out on the clothesline to dry, then proceed to fight the crows. She would run out there with her mop. We actually laughed at her doing that.”

After the bapa is thoroughly dry, it’s mixed with the cherry patties and a little buffalo kidney fat. She said that to make a couple of pounds of wasna, you add about a tablespoon of kidney fat and some cherry juice.

“You have to develop an eye for it depending on the texture of the bapa,” she said. “Some bapa is really dry so you have to add more fat.”

Auntie Kay said using buffalo fat was essential to the recipe because using beef fat makes the mixture gel up and can lead to spoiling. “If you were to make wasna in modern days now with cow fat, there is no way any warriors would take it with them for two or three weeks. It would be pretty ripe by then.”

Importance of the Buffalo

The fact that buffalo is so intrinsic to wasna is an illustration of its importance to my “oyate,” my people. The history of the Buffalo Nation and the Lakota Nation is so intertwined as to almost be indistinguishable.

According to my good friend, Richard B. Williams, president of the American Indian College Fund and an expert in Native history, this shared journey is essential to who the Lakota are today.

In his article, “History of the Relationship of the Buffalo and the Indian,” Williams, an Oglala Lakota, said the Indian’s economic dependence on the buffalo had a very important part in developing the interactive and cooperative economic relationships:

The American Indian was dependent on the buffalo for survival. With the demise of the buffalo, the American Indian’s life evolved into economic dependence on the U.S. government with cycles of severe poverty. The cooperative economic relationships of tribal societies that evolved with the buffalo culture became outdated in the competitive world of the white man.

This conflict of economic values is well documented by analyzing the economic development projects that have been successful on reservations. With few exceptions, most have not been successful primarily because of the reliance on the competitive economic model that is universally accepted in America. Capitalism, by its very nature, promotes individualism, which also conflicts with tribalism.

This is not a condemnation of the competitive nature of Americans. It is a result of the misunderstanding of cultural values and the dynamics related to personal, family and tribal relationships. These factors change the dynamics of economic competition. Positive interactive family and tribal relationships have a higher value in Indian society than economic competitiveness.

The Indian’s economic dependence on the buffalo had a very important part in developing the interactive and cooperative economic relationships. The buffalo is a giving animal. It gave its life so Indians could live. The buffalo’s generosity provided Indians with food and shelter. Indian people modeled the buffalos generosity, and it became fundamental to the economy of the American Indian. Like the buffalo, the American Indian people are generous.

The American Indian and the buffalo coexisted in a rare balance between nature and man. The American Indian developed a close, spiritual relationship with the buffalo. The sacred buffalo became an integral part of the religion of the Plains Indian. Furthermore, the diet of primarily buffalo created a unique physiological relationship. The adage “You are what you eat” was never more applicable than in the symbiotic relationship between the buffalo and the Plains Indian. The Plains Indian culture was intrinsic with the buffalo culture. The two cultures could not be separated without mutual devastation.

Many of our Indian ancestors’ visions included prophesies about the future of the buffalo and Indian. Red Cloud in his last public address to the Oglala people said, “We told them that the supernatural powers, Taku Wakan, had given to the Lakota the buffalo for food and clothing. We told them that where the buffalo ranged, that was our country. We told them the country of the buffalo was the country of the Lakota We told them that the buffalo must have their country and the Lakota must have the buffalo (1903).”

A new relationship among the buffalo, the American Indian and the United States government has been developing. The buffalo has been given new freedom in certain areas, such as Yellowstone Park. In the park, the buffalo has been allowed to renew the migration patterns that characterized their pattern of existence for many thousands of years. Their numbers have grown significantly over the years and they are no longer an endangered species.

The same is true of the American Indian, his numbers have increased significantly and the policies and practices of the Federal Government have given the Indian new freedom. It is in this freedom that the future of the buffalo and American Indian have come back together. It is in these simple historical similarities that the future of the Indian and the buffalo are intertwined in destiny.

Black Elk, the revered visionary predicted that the Sacred Hoop would be mended again, but as part of that process, the buffalo would return. Indian people believed in this vision. They waited for many generations for this miracle to happen. It was a vision of the buffalo suddenly appearing out of the lakes and reinhabiting the northern and southern plains. The buffalo reappearing in mountains, coming from the Sacred Blue Lake to help the Pueblo People, renewing the life of the Comanche on the southern Plains, gracing the quiet woodlands of the east. This was the dream and, in this dream ,there is a reality. The buffalo are coming back. And it is something of a miracle, Indian people of all tribes organizing to make this dream become a reality.

Without the buffalo, it is unlikely that the Indian could have survived the harsh rigors of the Plains. With them, they achieved a rich and colorful life.

To eat buffalo meat is a spiritual ritual. The buffalo represents a spiritual essence that developed through a co-existence for over 30,000 years. To re-establish healthy buffalo populations on tribal lands is to re-establish life itself for Indian people. The beneficial aspects of buffalo meat when compared to beef have been well-documented. Buffalo meat is low in cholesterol and fat. The reintroduction of the buffalo to the American Indian diet would be extremely beneficial to the health of the people.

“In a lot of ways, the Indian people’s stock market was the buffalo,” Williams said, as he discussed his research and this symbiotic relationship between animal and human. “If today, buffalo was our stock market, we could eat our investments, wear our investments and we could even live in our investments.”

In spite of the odds that the buffalo and Native Americans have faced since the late 1800s, Williams’ article cites Lakota leader Black Elk, who predicted that the Sacred Hoop would be mended again. As part of that process, Black Elk said the buffalo would return.

Williams said if we knew where to look today, we could probably go out on a plain and find a food cache. “It would probably be good to eat,” he said. “They would dry meat, fruits, and vegetables and pack them in a way to preserve them. Then they would dig a hole in the ground and cover them up. Then they would go back later when they needed food and dig up the cache. They thought about the future.”

Looking to the Future

The future is where we were looking when we founded Native American Natural Foods. Diabetes and obesity are at epic levels among my people, and our leadership and health professionals are working hard to reverse those trends. Our decision to create a buffalo-based product was no accident. Buffalo are raised on open grassland, and there are no low-level antibiotics, no hormones, no drug residues, and no preservatives in buffalo. It also has less fat and cholesterol than chicken, according to the USDA.

Our use of cranberries, also used in early versions of wasna, instead of choke cherries, which are not readily available in large quantities, adds even more benefits. A study published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry says that cranberries contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits, as well as ellagic acid, a cancer-fighting phytochemical. Cranberries and choke cherries are both indigenous to North America and both have acids that help to naturally preserve buffalo meat.

Guided by our elders’ advice and omitting the kidney fat of the original wasna recipe, Tanka Bars are 100 percent natural, only 70 calories, with no trans fat and no added sugar or nitrites.

Achieving the formula wasn’t easy. It took us nearly two years to develop a recipe that was faithful to the traditional dish, was shelf stable, and that tasted good. Because of the sweet flavor of the cranberries, the children on our reservation call it “buffalo candy.”

“I’m shocked when I look around our communities,” Williams said. “We’re outside our cultural norm. When we were eating buffalo and berries, we were strong people. We had the spirit of the plants and animals we were eating and we were stronger for it.

“Those are the kinds of things that are coming back today. The Tanka Bar is important. It is bridging a hundred years of a lost way by recapturing some of our traditions. I think that’s important. When you look at Indian people, the things we did 150 years ago still have value for us today.”

Karlene Hunter is CEO and co-founder of Native American Natural Foods, a Native-owned company based on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Hunter serves on the Board of Directors of the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. She has also served on the Board of Directors for the Native American Rights Fund; the National Indian Business Association; and the Pine Ridge Area Chamber of Commerce. Ms. Hunter, who holds an MBA from Oglala Lakota College, has received numerous awards, including the 2007 SBA Minority Business Person of the Year for South Dakota.

Native American Natural Foods is part of the community of Certified B Corporations. Read more stories of people using business as a force for good in B the Change, or sign up to receive the B the Change Weekly newsletter for more stories like the one above, delivered straight to your inbox.

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