Popcorn of the Lower Brule

Tucked within the 230,000 acres of South Dakota’s Lower Brule Sioux Indian Reservation, Kul Wicasa Oyate, amidst rolling hills of sage and sweetgrass and the big bend of the Missouri River, lies the town of Lower Brule. Bison graze and roll in a nearby pasture. The Golden Buffalo Casino entices travelers to try their luck. The Sioux Boys Gas and Convenience store is ready to service anyone driving the long, winding roads.

Between the casino and the Missouri sits an unassuming building that at first to peek briefly might easily be mistaken for an ordinary warehouse. But if the wind is right, you might just catch a whiff of a familiar odor that has made millions of saliva glands go into overdrive over the years; the smell of recently popped popcorn.

Welcome to Lakota Foods, the only 100% Native American owned popcorn manufacturer in the world. An extension of the Lower Brule Farm Corporation, which has been selling bulk popcorn worldwide for over thirty years, Lakota Foods is making a name for itself in grocery stores, casinos, national parks and monuments, and baseball stadiums, seeing triple-digit growth for four years in a row.

“The strong Native American tie to popcorn has at the minimum as much cultural significance as the buffalo,” says Lakota Foods president, Shain Heiss. Some Native Americans believed a restless spirit resided inside the kernel. When disturbed with heat, it burst out of its shell in an angry puff of steam.

Originating in what is now Mexico thousands of years ago, popcorn had spread throughout North America long before the first Europeans arrived. Small ears of corn carbon dated to about 3600 BC have been found in a New Mexico Cave, the corn so well preserved that a few kernels tested truly popped. Evidence points to the Cachise Indians cultivating popcorn as far back as 2500 BC.

Historic methods of popping corn are nearly as different as the kernels themselves. The Iroquois popped their corn in clay pots heated with a inner of sand. The Winebago skewered an oiled cob with a stick, heating it near the fire, the popped kernels adhering to the cob until eaten. The Papago Indians used ‘ollas,” large clay pots, the design which goes back 1500 years.

Lakota Foods uses slightly more modern methods, however. Housed in a new 10,000 square foot building, they’re able to package 3,000 bags of microwave popcorn an hour, and clean and screen 50,000 lbs of this hard little grain a day.

So when the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe was looking for solutions to ease a 39% unemployment rate, popcorn was a natural answer. Besides the high valley of the Missouri River was a perfect fit for growing this ‘prairie gold.’

Lakota Foods employs as many as twenty-five tribal members in complete and part-time locaiongs. “The Lakota name on our packages generates a sense of pride for our employees and members of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, and the great Lakota Nation,” says Heiss. “And in a sense, it provides hope for other Native American tribes and Native owned businesses.”

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