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Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

Tanka Time

Tribal traditions on the go

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The easy, quick, travel-friendly energy bar can be salvation when, in a sleep-induced haze, you opt to snooze for 30 more minutes rather than wake up in time to eat a complete breakfast. Along with protein and fiber, these compact energy bars are packed with carbohydrates, which makes them ideal for fueling the body during heart-pumping physical activity, but not so great as meal replacements. By lunchtime, the carbohydrate-induced spike in your blood sugar from that conveniently portable breakfast is long gone and you’re wishing you could hit snooze again. If only there was an energy bar loaded with protein and slim on the carbs…

Karlene Hunter and Mark Tilsen are Oglala Lakotas who own and operate Native American Natural Foods on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. “We live in one of the most isolated places in the country, both geographically and economically,” Tilsen says. “It’s one of America’s poorest counties, where the average male only lives to be 55 years old.”

To improve their community’s access to healthy dietary choices and to strengthen its economy, Tilsen and Hunter created a family of branded foods that promotes the best of Native-American culture and community. For the company’s first endeavor, the 70-calorie Tanka Bar, Tilsen and Hunter looked to the traditions of their ancestors for inspiration.

“A hunter or warrior would carry a mixture of dried buffalo and dried chokeberries that had been pounded together, what we call wasna, which means ‘all mixed up,’” Tilsen explains. “The acids from the fruit created a natural nitrate which preserved the meat.”

Wasna was one of the first products to be exported from the Great Plains when tribes sold it to the Hudson’s Bay Co., as well as the U.S. Cavalry. With the help of scientists at the South Dakota State meat science laboratory, Native American Natural Foods discovered how to use a commercial meat smoker to simulate the traditional sun-drying process their ancestors used to cure buffalo meat. Using lean prairie-fed buffalo from their tribe’s herd, tart Wisconsin cranberries and herbalpres  revatives, Tilsen and Hunter created modern wasna in the form of the Tanka Bar, a 1-ounce meat proteinbased energy bar that boasts 7 grams of protein with only 1.5 grams of fat and 7 grams of carbohydrates.

While it is similar to jerky, the Tanka Bar is more tender and moist because of its higher water-activity level. The natural process by which it’s made, coupled with its natural preservatives, make the Tanka Bar shelf-stable for 12 months. The contrasting flavors of the sweet berries and the rich, smoky buffalo coexist surprisingly well, creating a satisfying, balanced snack.

According to Tilsen, Native American Natural Foods products are currently available at 2,200 locations around the country and can be expected in REI stores in spring. Here in Milwaukee, the Tanka Bar can be found at Outpost Natural Foods Co-op grocery stores. Next month at Natural Products Expo West, Native American Natural Foods will be debuting Tanka Bar Hot, a buffalo cranberry bar flavored with a spicy blend of jalapeno, habanero and red peppers. The Tanka Bar will also be available in a 3-ounce resealable bag called the Tanka Bite.

In Lakota, “Tanka” refers to delivering your best and living in balance with yourself, your natural surroundings, your community and your family.

“If you look at the traditional foods of the native people, they knew how to live in balance,” Tilsen says. “We are not so far away that we all can’t find that. Sometimes we have to look backward in order to move forward.”

For more information, call 1-800-416- 7212 or go www.tankabar.com.