Celebrating with buffalo
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.
Consulting the experts
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.
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," 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."
'Best wasna from choke cherries beaten with stone'
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."
Once 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."
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. He said 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 buffalo's generosity, and it became fundamental to the economy of the American Indian.'
"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."
Black Elk said the buffalo would return
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 writes:
'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.'
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."