This story is part of a collaborative series, “At the Crossroads,” from the Institute for Nonprofit News, Indian Country Today, Mvskoke Media and eight other news partners, examining the state of the economy in Indian Country. This reporting was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.
By Liz Gray and Morgan Taylor
OKMULGEE, Oklahoma — On a stretch of highway between Tulsa and Okmulgee that cuts through the Mvskoke Reservation, commuters have grown accustomed to passing Duck Creek Casino, owned and operated by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
Now the view includes a neighboring business, Looped Square Meat Co., the tribe’s latest economic venture that draws its name from a symbol representing the balance of nature. The $15 million meat-processing facility includes a retail space that sells what has been branded as “reservation worthy” meats and other foods.
It’s part of a growing agricultural enterprise for the tribe, which started with a small farm more than 75 years ago and has expanded to nearly 6,000 acres with the recent purchase of ranchlands near Okmulgee – the largest known land acquisition in the tribe’s history.
And although the tribe’s nine casinos are still the main source of funding, officials believe the expansion of agriculture can provide regular income, jobs and food security for tribal citizens.
“Lots of Indian Country have taken more of an active role in the management of natural resources and the use of their land,” said Trent Kissee, a tribal citizen and manager of the tribe’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
“I think there’s a variety of factors in that,” Kissee said. “Some of it is that tribes are just now becoming able to do so financially.”
The financial boost for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation came in the form of CARES Act money in 2020, which funded the construction of the 25,000-square-foot meat processing plant. The facility opened in December with eight employees, but is expected to eventually be fully staffed with 25 workers.
And the Muscogee (Creek) Nation is not the only tribe investing in agriculture. Indigenous and Alaska Native producers generated an estimated $3.5 billion in agriculture sales in 2017, with three-fourths specializing in livestock production, according to the Native American Agriculture Fund.
The Osage Nation Ranch in northern Oklahoma operates a cow-calf operation and a conservation herd of bison, in part on land purchased from media mogul Ted Turner. In other parts of the country, tribal nations operate fisheries, ranches, poultry farms, food processing plants, farms, nurseries and other agricultural enterprises.
For many, it’s a way to generate income in traditional ways without depleting natural resources.
“What I’ve heard from many tribes is that they’re trying to do agriculture in a way that honors the Earth, sort of looks at a whole system, and the interrelations of land and people and community,” said Patrice Kunesh, of Standing Rock Lakota descent, development officer for the Native American Rights Fund and former director of the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.
“Whereas (with) agribusiness,” she said, “you tend to have blinders on and be totally focused on profit and the highest production.”
History of tribal ranching
Kissee pulls up a photo of various cuts of beef on his phone and explains the marbling of a steak as if reading a map.
The white lines running through the meat like rivers and creeks are attributed to the high quality of beef the tribe is producing these days with its herds of Brangus and other cattle.
“See those little flecks on the inside?” he asked. “That would be a high choice grade of steer.”
Farming and ranching have been present in the territory since the southeastern tribes reached the end of their journey from the long walk caused by forced removal from their ancestral homelands in Georgia, Alabama and other areas.
“Native people have significant livestock interests all over the country,” said Janie Hipp, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and the first Indigenous person to serve as general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during a ribbon-cutting event held by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
“When COVID happened in those early months…I was getting phone calls every single day from tribal leadership all over the country because the supply chain started feeling rigid and having breaks here and there.”
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has had land for almost a century in rural Oklahoma, including a 359-acre farm in Dustin that was purchased for the tribe by the federal government on Nov. 19, 1941, and placed in trust.
But prosperity has not exactly been synonymous with agriculture for the tribe; even the sandy soil associated with the farm was not ideal for feeding cattle.
When Kissee came to the tribe in 2017, the herd needed a lot of attention, and not just for the usual issues related to cattle ranching.
“Nutritionally, we needed to work on how we were feeding the cows,” he said. “As you grow and develop a program, you hit hurdles that you have to grow and learn yourself.”
Beyond nutritional needs, Kissee used his knowledge in animal science and genetics to make the bulls and heifers carrying the Looped Square brand something to be proud of, with weaning calves weighing in at more than 550 lbs.
The tribe purchased the new ranchlands in October 2021 after the historic 12,000-acre Dillingham Ranch was divided in half and put up for sale. The site was near the tribal headquarters, the town of Okmulgee and the Okmulgee Airport.
It was promptly renamed the Looped Square Ranch, where officials expect to operate with some fewer than the 1,100 cow-calf pairs that made up the previous operations there. The property included a house, trailer, barns and other buildings.
“The timing was right,” Kissee said at the time.
The purchase came about two months before construction on the meat processing plant was finished. The plant opened in December with state-of-the-art equipment, multiple kill-floor spaces, a test kitchen, freezers, aerobic lagoons and filtration systems and the retail space — all of which are certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation Environmental Services.
The plant brought its own set of challenges, however. In addition to struggles for materials and other problems caused by the pandemic, the tribe was faced with opposition from a neighboring residential community.
Residents of the town of Winchester sent letters of intent to sue the Muscogee (Creek) Nation for what they said were violations of the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, and voiced concerns about the potential for environmental problems and odors they feared would be associated with the plant.
The tribe said the facility is designed for proper capture of wastewater and stormwaters, and has met all necessary requirements. The town remains opposed to the plant.
Taking care of the land
Tribal leaders are now focused on being good stewards of the land, an important factor in agriculture not just for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation but other tribal nations as well.
Even the Looped Square name and brand draws on Muskogean design to represent Earth in a way that shows a balance between natural resources and agriculture that a non-Indigenous ag producer might not attempt.
For the Muscogee Nation, that means maintaining the natural landscape of the area.
“Not only are we raising cattle on this land but we’re hunting and fishing this land,” Kissee said. “It wouldn’t serve them well if we were spraying the ponds to keep the algae out and making sure there’s no aquatic growth, (or) … getting rid of all the timber to get rid of wildlife. Those are some things that we balance.”
Kunesh, who also served as the USDA’s undersecretary for rural development during the Obama administration, said there are significant barriers to entering the agriculture market because of big corporate farming interests, which don’t leave much space for smaller producers, both Native and non-Native.
North of the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, the Osage Nation Ranch is also known for its plains and large grazing area. The Osage Nation sits on about 47,000 acres, and operates a cow-calf operation with about 2,600 cows as well as a conservation herd of bison.
The Osage Nation Ranch is a standalone enterprise run by board members and leased from the Osage Nation. It recently won the Conservationist of the Year award from the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts for its application of conservation practices and demonstration of concern for the protection of natural resources.
Before the discovery of oil, the Osage Nation had leased out its grasslands to Texas cattlemen, according to ranch consultant and former board chairman Galen Crum. The tribe built the herd by taking money from cattle sales for overhead and building infrastructure.
“Take a look at other enterprises that the Osage and everyone else is running,” Crum said. “The cattle are (like) slot machines; if you’ve got a big building and no slot machines, you’re not going to make any money. So you get enough slot machines or cattle to match your expenses and utilize the land that you have. We were and still are in the process of adding cattle.”
The Osage Nation also built a meat processing plant, and operates greenhouses and aquaponics programs.
“When COVID started, with meat security we couldn’t get any place else and couldn’t process ours,” Crum said. “We don’t run the processing plant but the tribe itself, using the CARES Act money, built a facility in Hominy.”
‘This is our home’
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Looped Square Meat Co. now sits between the area’s nearest grocery stores, with a local general store about 9 miles away in one direction and Walmart about 13 miles away in the other direction, near Glenpool, Oklahoma.
It’s an area considered a food desert, with an estimated 17 percent food insecurity rate within Okmulgee County, according to the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma.
The plant is now processing beef from the Looped Square Ranch, and will also process pigs and deer in separate areas.
The retail store offers a variety of meats including fresh and frozen beef, chicken and pork. It also stocks other grocery items, including a special type of corn that is a key ingredient in making sofke, a traditional corn soup or drink.
And the tribe is keeping an eye on the future. The youth agriculture program is growing, introducing career pathways for tribal youth. Kissee said the goal is one day to provide a job market for the youth on the Mvskoke Reservation to promote a message that they do not have to leave home to find a sustainable career.
The Muscogee Nation has recently appropriated money to help build a youth teaching center for agriculture and for commercial greenhouses.
“We don’t want them to have to move to Iowa to work on a big farm when we could potentially provide them agribusiness careers here or even government ag-type jobs like you would see at the USDA,” Kissee said.
Hipp praised the tribe’s efforts to add the meat-processing plant to the ranch operations.
“It takes a Herculean effort to build a plant like this top to bottom, soup to nuts, A to Z, in the amount of time they did,” Hipp said. “Tribal governments are showing that it can be done over and over again. That’s really an important piece of the puzzle, who can really just get in there and make it happen, and the Muscogee Nation did.”
Kissee is optimistic about what’s ahead.
“I think long term, the plan is to have the agribusiness entity which would include the ranch and the processing facility,” he said. “We’re turning over profit and putting it back into the general fund and being able to provide services.”
He continued, “For tribal nations, this is what we do, this is our home. We work, we play, we raise our families. Home means something different to us. Earth means something different to us.”
This story is part of a collaboration from the Institute for Nonprofit News Rural News Network in partnership with INN members Indian Country Today, Buffalo’s Fire, InvestigateWest, KOSU, New Mexico In Depth, Underscore and Wisconsin Watch, as well as partners Mvskoke Media, Osage News and Rawhide Press. Series logo by Mvskoke Creative. The project was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.
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