At the two locations of Tocabe, a Denver-area American Indian restaurant, customers have long asked the owners Matt Chandra and Ben Jacobs where to buy the Native and Indigenous ingredients used in the kitchen, like the wild rice in the grain bowls, or the bison for the glazed ribs with berry barbecue sauce.
Last May, the pair realized they could become the source for those ingredients, leveraging their existing relationships with suppliers to build “an economy that can keep money within Indian country,” said Mr. Jacobs, a member of the Osage Nation of Northeast Oklahoma.
As restaurateurs embraced new business models to stave off the coronavirus’s devastation of their industry, the Tocabe owners set another goal for themselves: to create a robust ecosystem for Native and Indigenous food traditions to thrive.
That ecosystem is Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace, which goes live online this week with 40 products from nine producers — including maple syrup from Minogin Market in Mackinaw City, Mich., and tepary beans from Ramona Farms in Sacaton, Ariz. — and eventually, frozen meals. For every two items sold, Tocabe will donate one item to a Native community organization.
There are a handful of online businesses that focus on Native American products, including SweetGrass Trading Company and Native Harvest. Mr. Chandra and Mr. Jacobs hope Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace will be one of the most comprehensive shops of its kind, in terms of the geography and quantity of producers, and compete with non-Indigenous food commerce sites.
Too many Native and Indigenous producers have been excluded from the supply chains that would enable them to sell at a national level, and producers are too often bypassed by distributors and shipping routes, said Mr. Jacobs, 38. Many reservations and Native communities still don’t have access to high-speed internet because of systemic exclusion by service providers, creating additional barriers to self-distribution. For those who can access national supply chains, their foods are often purchased by corporations that erase their roots.
The Tocabe website provides descriptions of each product and supplier, and customers will eventually be able to search by tribe or region. In several cases, Mr. Chandra and Mr. Jacobs have set up distribution channels themselves, supporting Native businesses at each step. For instance, bison from Fred DuBray, a Cheyenne River Lakota rancher in South Dakota, are transported to a processing facility in the Osage Nation before arriving at Tocabe’s warehouse in Denver.
Allowing a product that is raised on their land to reach more consumers “can have huge benefits to all Native people down the road,” said Mr. DuBray, 70, and can help maintain traditions like bison hunting.
But the goal is not the mass commercialization of these traditions, Mr. Jacobs said. There are other foods, like heirloom varieties of corn, that Native people want to keep within their communities.
“That is the double-edged sword of this business,” said Rosebud Bear Schneider, 39, a market manager for Minogin Market and Ziibimijwang Farm who is Anishinaabe and a citizen of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewas.
“We want a place in mainstream America,” she said. “We also want to be very protective of our ways.”
Tocabe Indigenous Marketplace strives to do both.
“If we don’t tell the stories and claim these things as our own,” Mr. Jacobs said, “then they are just going to be taken again.”