American Indian products selling big on the Webby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
The Red Lake Band of Ojibwe in northern Minnesota has developed a booming business on the Internet. The band sells wild rice, jellies and traditional handmade crafts to customers worldwide. Red Lake is one of a growing number of American Indian tribes tapping the power of the Web to get the highest value for homegrown products and the effort is creating jobs and establishing new business networks in Indian Country.
Red Lake Reservation — Internet sales have exploded since Red Lake first started its Web site four years ago. Annual online sales for Red Lake Nation Foods jumped from around $10,000 the first year, to more than $250,000 in 2007.
Red Lake's products are being purchased worldwide, with the heaviest sales in Canada, Germany and the UK.
"The growth is phenomenal," says Joel Rohde, manager of Red Lake Nation Foods.
Rohde says before the Web site was created, most of the tribe's wild rice and other products were sold to wholesalers or small-scale retailers close to the reservation. The Internet has created unlimited opportunities for Red Lake to get the most out of its resources.
"We're very remote and our access to the big city, so to speak, our best access and most cost effective access is by the Internet," Rohde says. Farmed wild rice is Red Lake's biggest seller but the Web site also features homegrown jams and jellies, maple and berry syrups, and crafts made from birch bark.
Now that Red Lake has resumed its commercial fishing operation, Rohde says Internet customers will soon be able to purchase walleye and yellow perch fillets online.
Rohde says the Internet boom has created hundreds of seasonal and full time jobs on the reservation. He says that's a big deal for a place with nearly 70 percent unemployment.
"All of the birch bark work is hand crafted by tribal members locally. And those are also spin-off jobs, if you will," Rohde explains. "You know, the berry pickers, the fishermen, the basket makers, the birch bark folks, are all jobs that really didn't exist two, three, four years ago."
In the old days, the Red Lake Band's marketing, packaging and distribution was out-sourced to non-Indian companies. But the tribe is now doing more of that itself.
Last year, Red Lake got $1 million grant from the Shakopee Sioux community to set up its own packaging warehouse.
Red Lake is one of only a handful of tribes in the country doing direct sales online.
Tribal Chairman Buck Jourdain says that means more profit for the tribe. Jourdain says it also opens the door for cross-marketing and partnership opportunities with other American Indian tribes across the U.S.
"We have tribal nations from throughout the country that contact us and say, 'Hey, we saw your product online.' Working with other Indian companies and other Native Nations to help each other out and build networks on-line, I think that's the way things are moving right now," Joudain says.
Red Lake and about two dozen other tribes are working with a Montana-based non-profit organization called the Intertribal Agriculture Council.
The council's goal is to help tribes market their products globally using the Internet and through trade shows.
Western tribes are selling apples and salmon online. Tribes in the Dakotas sell bison meat. Southwestern tribes are marketing beans, potatoes and hominy.
Nathan Notah, director of an ag council program that focuses on overseas markets, says there's growing interest in Europe and Asia in American Indian foods, largely because it appeals to those who want a natural diet. He says there's also a big interest in tribal culture.
"They're under the impression, in Germany or even Japan, that Native Americans no longer exist in the United States," Notah says. "So we're doing a double educational program when we try to promote our Native American foods, they're also realizing that Native American people still do exist here in the United States and that we haven't been totally wiped out."
Notah brings marketing reps from each tribe to food shows around the world. They present gourmet Native American meals to potential buyers.
He says one of the goals is to get Native American products into overseas grocery store chains. Notah would also like to make Native American cuisine more popular in restaurants.
"There's a couple of high end restaurants in London that are very interested in our products. We just made some sales to the Hyatt-Regency restaurant chains in Japan," Notah says. "I think as people learn about what we have to offer from here in the U.S., I think the number of high end restaurants that are going to be utilizing our products is going to increase substantially."
It's not just tribal governments that are cashing in on the growing popularity of American Indian products. A few private entrepreneurs are doing quite well with Web sites of their own.
"I gotta bag up this rice. There's rice in there, there's hominy in there, jams," Kathy Lausche says as she puts together an online wild rice order.
The shelves of her home office near the Leech Lake Reservation are lined with jars of locally made jellies, candles and Native artwork, including decorative birch bark canoes.
Lausche says she's amazed at the online interest in Native American foods and crafts.
"It's grown way more than we could have ever anticipated, and faster," she says.
Internet sales began as just a hobby for Lausche and her husband, Tony Nyberg. They started out buying locally-harvested wild rice and Native crafts, then reselling them on Ebay.
In 2002 the couple decided to create their own Web site. They call it Bineshii which means little bird in Ojibwe.
The couple say their annual sales have nearly tripled each year. It's become their full time job. They say the site averages about 10,000 hits a day.
Bineshii provides seasonal income for nearly 100 people on the Leech Lake Reservation. Tony Nyberg says a handful of traditional crafters and artists are able to make a full-time living at it.
"They can go all year now, making product," Nyberg says. "Where (before), they just had a short time in the summer to try to sell to some stores in Bemidji or the local gift shops and resorts. And once that season was done, their income was done for the year."
Nyberg says they've sent large wild rice shipments to Japan. They have repeat customers in Australia and the UK. He says about a quarter of their business is overseas.
"It just snowballed, and actually from the start it snowballed. When she used to sell 10 pounds of rice, she had this little hoo-ha thing she did, you know, every time we sold 10 pounds of rice," Nyberg says with a smile. "And now 10 pounds of rice is nothing. It's just nothing... The Internet is what makes it possible."
Tony and Kathy say they they expect their business will continue to grow and their product line will expand. The couple is considering adding Native grown Thanksgiving turkeys to their product line, and maybe even smoked quails.
There's no way of knowing just how big the online industry is for Native American products, since no national studies have been done. According to Nathan Notah with the Intertribal Ag Council, tribal sales online could exceed a billion dollars a year across the country.
- Morning Edition, 01/24/2008, 6:50 a.m.