Bison Co-Op Helping Native Americans Develop Production, Marketing Strategy

By Schofer, Dan | Rural Cooperatives, January-February 2008 | Go to article overview

Bison Co-Op Helping Native Americans Develop Production, Marketing Strategy


Schofer, Dan, Rural Cooperatives


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The Intertribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) is a nonprofit tribal organization with 57 tribal members across 19 states committed to restoring buffalo herds to Indian Nations. This is being done in a manner that is compatible with the spiritual beliefs and cultural practices of these tribes. ITBC customers include the restaurant at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. It also provides buffalo robes and skulls for museum displays.

Helping ITBC in this effort is the funding it has received under the Small and Minority Producer Grant (SMPG) program of USDA Rural Development. This program provides funds and technical assistance to cooperatives or associations of cooperatives of small-scale, minority agricultural producers. The co-op or association must have a governing board and/or membership comprised of at least 75 percent minorities.

The role of ITBC, as established by it members, is coordinating the movement of surplus buffalo from national parks to tribal lands and developing marketing strategies. It also acts as a facilitator for educational and training programs.

ITBC provides technical assistance to members to help them develop management plans that will enable tribal herds to become self-sustaining. To do this, tribes need to acquire business tools to develop and implement long-term business and marketing plans for their individual herds.

Combining heritage and economics

Many Native American communities and tribal governments manage their herds solely for heritage and spiritual purposes. The challenge facing them is to also manage their herds as economically self-supporting businesses.

Some tribes regularly take children enrolled in tribal Head Start programs on tours of the buffalo herds to teach them about nature and the heritage of their tribes. Tribes also slaughter a select few animals for special events, sun dances and for consumption by the elders of the tribe.

"All of our member-tribes know it takes money to manage a herd properly," explains Greg Wrangel, marketing director for ITBC. "People have been waiting for a comprehensive approach to make the tribal herds economically viable, as well as embodying our heritage and spiritually."

In its effort to use buffalo as an economic resource, USDA awarded ITBC funds from the Small and Minority Producer Grants program to provide tribal members with:

* An assessment of current management and business practices;

* Business and marketing software;

* Regional training on using new software for each tribe's buffalo program;

* The newest available production and herd-management techniques;

* A national conference, including training and the delivery of preliminary project evaluations.

The first phase of the project involved evaluating current management and business practices for individual tribal herds. Most members did not previously have any written business or marketing plans, working only on verbal directives from tribal councils or leaders. …

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