A Lakota drum group sings in an aisle of the new Buche Foods grocery store in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, during the store's grand opening on April 9, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Oglala Sioux Tribe welcomes reopening of grocery store on Pine Ridge Reservation

'A positive step for the reservation'
Buche Foods is only grocery store in tribal headquarters

PINE RIDGE, South Dakota – Melissa Zephier took a walk Tuesday with her 5-year-old grandson Moses in Pine Ridge, the seat of the Oglala Lakota people.

On the eve of a major winter storm, the Lakota woman decided it would be a good time to grab some groceries.

But her trip to her community’s grocery store was anything but typical.

The worn-out, painted lettering on the side of the store – which had proclaimed the Sioux Nation Shopping Center for almost 50 years – had been swapped out. In its place, a metal obelisk with permanent lettering now heralded Buche Foods.

Oglala Lakota citizens and others wait to enter the Buche Foods grocery store in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, for the store's grand opening on April 9, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

And a long line of people stood waiting for the doors to open for the first time to customers.

Zephier said she’s hopeful her community’s new grocer will serve Pine Ridge better than its predecessor.

“I’m hoping that the prices will be a little bit cheaper for everybody,” she said, standing outside the store. “Some people have to travel a long ways. Some people don’t have cars that are reliable. So I’m just hoping this will work out for everybody.”

Her sentiment is one likely felt by many on the impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which has few grocery or convenience stores and has long been plagued by a lack of access to fresh produce and reasonably priced foods.

"Serving the Lakota Sioux people": Buche Foods employees put the final touches on a mural on the side of the store in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

Like many reservation communities, Pine Ridge is a food desert, despite being home to nearly 40,000 Oglala Lakota people.

In November, leaders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe voted to replace Hi-Way 20 – the owner of Sioux Nation Shopping Center – with Buche Foods, which owns three other grocery stores and several convenience stores across South Dakota.

Following a contentious reservation-wide debate about the future of Sioux Nation, the tribal council decided to end Hi-Way 20’s contract. A particularly powerful argument made to end the company’s contract was the tribe’s decision in 2012 to temporarily close the store after Indian Health Service inspectors found 11 critical violations in the meat department, including employees mixing rotten hamburger with fresh hamburger and repackaging it for sale.

As the sound of a Native American drum group reverberated through the store on Tuesday, owner RF Buche said he was elated to see the store reopen following significant renovations and he was hopeful his store’s varied selection and reasonable prices would end the debate over who should manage the only grocery store in Pine Ridge.

Beneath a sign reading "yatkephica" for "beverages," two women walk inside the newly renovated and opened Buche Foods grocery store in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The store replaces the former Sioux Nation Shopping Center on the reservation. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

“I think there was a lot of fear of the unknown,” he said. “They haven’t had a grocery store, really, forever in my opinion. But that’s all behind us and we’re moving on to bigger and better.”

Inside the store, shoppers pushed small carts through brightly lit aisles stocked full of name brand foods alongside generic brands like Best Choice and Always Save. A Lakota drum group performed next to refrigerated coolers and a sign that read: “Wakablapi, lunch meat.”

Other store-section signs offered similar Lakota language interpretations, including “woichage loya,” or fresh produce, and “wakazuzu,” or checkout.

Underneath a sign that read “yatkephica,” or beverages, Red Dog – a Porcupine man – stood before a cart looking at drinks.

He said the store was “cool” and “impressive” and said he especially enjoyed the smaller-than-normal shopping carts that made it easier for him to navigate the crowded aisles.

“I like all the fresh fruit that they got,” he said, holding a plastic-wrapped half cantaloupe with a strawberry inside it. “It don’t cost a lot. I’m into fresh fruit.”

"We’re moving on to bigger and better": RF Buche, owner of Buche Foods in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, stands near the main entrance during the store's grand opening on April 9, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Karin Eagle, the tribe’s media relations specialist, said she appreciates having a place where she can find quality produce and meat, as well as a wide selection of brands that provide customers with varying financial resources with different price options.

“A lot of people are looking at making better food choices and living healthier but when you have limited options it’s almost impossible to do,” she said.

“I grew up here and it’s always been whatever’s there, that’s what you have to buy and eat it and prepare it the best you can, but now it’s just a really good thing. It’s a positive step for the reservation.”

A young boy pushes a new bicycle out of the Buche Foods grocery store in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, during the store's grand opening on April 9, 2019. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

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