Blog: Northern Arapaho Tribe deal with Whole Foods falls apart
"Indians and whites have been doing business together since the time of Columbus—almost invariably to the Indians’ detriment. But the announcement last year that the Northern Arapaho tribe had been tapped to supply organic grass-fed beef to Whole Foods Markets seemed like a win for all concerned: The tribe would make money off its land, the grocery chain would score points for environmental and social responsibility, and consumers would enjoy the health and culinary benefits of eating free-range beef with a Native American pedigree.

Alas, it hasn’t worked out that way.

Arapaho Ranch entrance sign to the main ranch on June 18, 2010. Photograph by Robert Durell

Barely a year after it was trumpeted with tribal dances and cooking demonstrations at Whole Foods stores in Denver and other western cities, the beef deal has collapsed. Tribal officials pulled the plug after a price dispute with Paramount Meats, Inc., the California firm that was the middleman in the deal and now provides Whole Foods with grass-fed beef from other sources. The tribe has recently resumed selling its cattle in the conventional beef market.

“We weren’t making a profit,” explained Harvey Spoonhunter, the chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council that oversees the Arapaho Ranch, a 595,000-acre cattle operation near here. “It just wasn’t a good fit.”

The story of the short-lived partnership is in one respect a straightforward tale of a business deal gone awry. But it also highlights the challenges Native Americans face when they seek to share in the nation’s prosperity while safeguarding their natural resources and culture. The problem is particularly acute on the Wind River Indian Reservation in south-central Wyoming, which the Northern Arapaho share with the Eastern Shoshone tribe. Despite repeated attempts at economic diversification– including the introduction of casino gambling– tribal members continue to rely heavily on oil and gas royalties and various social-welfare programs. There are few Indian-owned businesses here and unemployment is as high as 60 percent in the winter."

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Heralded Pact for Tribal Grass-fed Beef Ends (WyoFile 6/21)