The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of South Dakota didn’t realize how vulnerable its food supply chain was until COVID-19 hit. During the pandemic, healthy food was hard to come by. Delivery trucks stopped coming at one point and the closest Walmart was an hour away.
“It has been a real eye-opener,” says Peter Lengkeek (Hunkpati Dakota), tribal chairman and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “During the pandemic, shelves went bare quickly in our one small grocery store. We had only two to three days’ worth of food at times for 1,500 people on the reservation, and that was stretching it.” The reservation became a “food desert,” he recalls.
The tribe was particularly concerned about its elders and children not having access to fresh, locally produced meat, an important source of protein to help strengthen the immune system and stave off illness. Although the tribe has more than 400 buffalo and 300 head of cattle on its expansive ranch, the waiting time to process the meat at an off-reservation plant was interminable ― up to a year at some facilities. Off-reservation farmers and ranchers had such a backlog of cattle, hogs, and turkeys that they had to give their livestock away.
The short-term solution to the tribe’s protein supply problem was to pay its citizens to fish and hunt for the entire community using COVID-19 funds. But it was quite clear that the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe needed a long-term solution, one that would provide self-sufficiency, improved food quality, and better access to high-quality beef and buffalo meat year-round ― especially for the elders, disabled, and less fortunate tribal members.
Hunkpati Processors is born
The Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Council got to work and created the Pandemic Food Sovereignty Project. This long-term, strategic solution included the purchase of two large greenhouses to grow fruits, herbs, and vegetables, and most important, the construction of a brand-new 2,600-square-foot meat processing plant on the existing 7,100-acre Crow Creek Tribal Ranch.
Hunkpati Processors officially opened last fall, providing tribal members with a steady supply of high-quality, locally produced beef, buffalo meat, and wild game. It has also provided a much-needed morale boost for the tribe.
“This project has brought great cultural pride to our people,” Lengkeek tells First Nations. “New infrastructure is something we haven’t seen in years and these new projects give our people hope.”
This facility can fully process up to 30 buffalo or cows a day, all the way through packaging. It features brand-new, high-end equipment, including a kill chute, two-ton hoist, splitting saw, rail trolley system, patty maker, slicer, grinder with a bone extractor, three freezers, holding coolers, and a smoker and mixer that can make up to 300 pounds of beef jerky at a time.
Although most of the meat will become burgers, Lengkeek says they plan to prioritize making beef jerky because there is a booming demand for it. According to Allied Market Research, the meat snacks market is projected to reach $11.3 billion by 2026 and beef jerky accounts for around 50% of the total market.
“Our smoker makes beef sticks, salami, and jerky. We plan to distribute a lot of jerky to tribal communities because it is very healthy and a great source of protein,” explains Chairman Lengkeek. Best of all, he says, the tribe will be using its own beef jerky recipes.
Lengkeek says Hunkpati Processors has received substantial encouragement from the surrounding community for the value the new meat processing plant has brought to the state. “We are getting more and more calls from non-Native farmers and ranchers who are rooting for us because they were in the same situation ― dealing with a shortage of meat lockers and meat processing plants in South Dakota to process their own livestock.”
Support from First Nations
The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe was one of six rural Native American communities that received funding under First Nations’ “Forging Last-Mile Protein Supply Chains in Indian Country” project, part of the Nourishing Native Foods & Health Program. The project was created to strengthen the infrastructures of local meat supply chains through financial support and technical assistance to give consumers improved access to high-quality meat.
“Last mile” refers to the unfortunate reality that during the pandemic, Native communities were often located at the last mile of many food supply chains, so lower-quality meats arrived in small quantities and at higher prices.
“We are so thankful to First Nations for all their support in helping us get Hunkpati Processors up and running. With a project this ambitious, it all comes down to funding,” says Lengkeek.
The tribe also received a grant from the state. In 2021, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem allocated $5 million in COVID-19 relief funds to encourage meat processors in the state to expand operations, buy new equipment, and start up meat processing plants. Keloland Media reports that 99 out of more than 100 applicants received the grants, including 16 new facilities like Hunkpati Processors.
A job creator
The new meat processing operation is also creating jobs for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. Tim Pickner, a tribal member, has been named co-director and trainer of Hunkpati Processors. He brings more than 40 years of experience in the meat processing industry to this lead role. Pickner is fully certified in HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point), which means he is highly proficient in reducing the risk of safety hazards in foods.
Pickner is currently hiring and training six tribal members to become butchers, and plans to recruit from the nearby high school, as well.
“We get to provide our people with a skill set and give them an opportunity to earn their own way,” says Chairman Lengkeek about another important benefit of opening Hunkpati Processors. He is hopeful that this new plant will help put a dent in the 85% unemployment rate on the reservation.
Future expansion plans include a fully staffed retail store where community members can buy fresh meat and meat products at a fair price directly from the tribal enterprise. “We will provide high-quality, healthy meat to people who know and trust where it comes from,” says Pickner.
Cultural pride and respect for every animal
Out of reverence and respect for animals ― and in accordance with traditional Native practices ― Hunkpati Processors will incorporate ceremony into the processing of its buffalo.
“We will implement a cultural aspect into our process, such as saying a blessing or prayer early in the morning, thanking the animals, our relatives, for supplying us with food and being a part of the food cycle,” says the director. “We will also teach our butchers how to use the whole animal ― the hides, horns, etc. ― to keep traditional food processes alive. There will be no waste.”
Pickner offers a nod to the Oneida Nation for the respectful way it manages its livestock at Oneida Nations Farm, where cattle are “clean, happy and healthy,” as reported on its website.
“We commend Oneida for taking the lead on the respectful management protocol for these animals,” says Pickner. “As the Oneida Nation said, ‘Our buffalo will have only one bad day.’”
To learn more about what other Native communities are doing to strengthen their protein supply food chains and improve food sovereignty, access the First Nations webinar series here.