Nestled within 230,000 acres of the Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Kul Wicasa Oyate, between rolling hills of sage and fennel and the great bend of the Missouri River, lies the city of Lower Brule. Bison grazes and rolls in a nearby pasture. Golden Buffalo Casino attracts travelers with their luck. The Sioux Boys gas and convenience store is ready to cater for anyone driving along the long winding roads.
Between the casino and Missouri is an unpretentious building that, at first glance, can easily be mistaken for a common warehouse. But if the wind is good, you may smell a familiar smell that has made millions of salivary glands exceed the years; the smell of fresh popped popcorn.
Welcome to Lakota Foods, the world's only 100% Native American popcorn maker. An extension of Lower Brule Farm Corporation, which has been selling bulk popcorn worldwide for over thirty years, Lakota Foods is excelling in supermarkets, casinos, national parks and monuments and baseball stadiums, growing from three digits to four. years in a row.
"The strong bond between Native Americans and popcorn has at least as much cultural significance as buffalo," says Shain Heiss, president of Lakota Foods. Some Native Americans believed that a restless spirit resided within the nucleus. When agitated by the heat, it burst from a shell in a cloud of angry vapor.
Originated in what is now Mexico for thousands of years, popcorn spread throughout North America long before the arrival of the first Europeans. Small carbon spikes of maize from about 3600 BC were found in a cave in New Mexico, the corn so well preserved that some tested grains actually burst. Evidence points to the Cachise Indians growing popcorn in 2500 BC.
The historical methods of popping corn are almost as diverse as the grains themselves. The Iroquois threw the corn into clay pots heated with a layer of sand. The Winebago speared an oiled ear with a stick, warming it near the fire, the cracked grains sticking to the ear until eaten. The Papago Indians wore ollas, large clay pots, the design dating back to 1500 years.
Lakota Foods uses slightly more modern methods, however. Housed in a new 10,000-square-foot building, they can pack 3,000 bags of microwave popcorn per hour and clean and sift 50,000 pounds of hard grain a day.
So when the Lower Brule Sioux tribe was looking for solutions to lower the unemployment rate by 39 percent, popcorn was a natural response. Beyond the fertile Missouri River valley, there was a perfect setting for growing that 'prairie gold'.
Lakota Foods employs up to twenty-five tribe members in full-time and part-time positions. "The Lakota name on our packages creates a sense of pride for our employees and members of the Lower Brule Sioux tribe and for the great Lakota nation," says Heiss. "And, in a sense, it provides hope for other Native American tribes and Indian-owned businesses."