Photography by Ryan Coody
The Baxoje (Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska) are located in the northeast corner of Kansas, and they are doing big things economically. With more than 26 enterprises outside of casino gaming—the Ioway Bee Farm, hemp cigarettes called Soje, a cattle farm, tire business, renewable energy, and others—the tribe has been able to provide jobs and resources to their local community.
Artees Vannett, the chief operations officer for Grey Snow Management Solutions, the economic development arm of the tribe, says they are creating an economy not only for them but also for the surrounding community.
“We oversee and manage all of the tribe’s for-profit businesses, including Soje and the Ioway Bee Farm. And we’re trying to see our economic development ventures as a way to support the entire community as well as all of our tribal members and be a source for people to go to. The only way we can grow our community is by providing education, providing better paying jobs and creating an economy that is a lot healthier. With all the businesses whose main economic driver is our agricultural enterprises, we try to see that, in all things that we do, we benefit the earth and we give back more than we take. We embrace the land, and so that whenever we’re doing something we know that we’re adding to the soil, we’re building our microbiome. In the end that is how we have longevity in our businesses.”
The bee farm was the first to get international business with a viral post by one of the tribal citizens. “Back on July 4, 2020,” Vannett recalls, “one of our tribal members posted on our Tumblr; it spread across the entire world in a period of 10 hours. We had 2,500 orders to our small bee farm, which had seen maybe 15 or 20 over the past six months, and it hasn’t stopped.”
At a time where people are talking about climate change, the Iowa Tribe is trying to help the environment with its companies. Vannett explains how it is more profitable.
“We’re gonna address climate change and we’re gonna utilize practices like holistic grazing or regenerative agriculture because we know first that it’s better for our environment. It’s better for our community, creates healthier foods, and it creates healthier forage for our cattle…. We let our environment work for us, and we work on restoring our soils. Our soil is really strong, and that will impact everything. That makes our jobs 100% easier. It will reduce the rates of disease and pests and all these other different pieces of collateral that you normally see in traditional farming or traditional business. I think everyone can get excited about supporting American tribes and supporting people who are willing to have a better impact on our environment and who seek out creating a better future for the next two, three, seven generations.”
With the Soje hemp cigarettes, the Iowa has gained more attention nationally, though it did have some concerns from tribal members who didn’t agree with the venture. Vannett says they try to educate on the difference between hemp cigarettes and THC-based marijuana to those who objected.
“There was some pushback, but with Soje, it is the Ioway name for smoke, and for this product we really tried to use the cultural identity of the tribe, the language within it as well as some of the traditional smoking herbs of the Ioway. Here’s something that has been used for hundreds of years as a medicinal way of interacting with sacred plants and plant medicines and an alternative to tobacco.”
And Soje has educated people all over the country about the Ioway Nation, Vannett explains.
“When you go into [the website], it asks if you’re 18 years or older, but the second question is like, do you support Native American tribes? It’s a call to action—do I want to have an impact with my purchases?—which is what I think our current generation sees the power of their dollar.”
Vannett explains that the impact of COVID-19 on gaming for tribes has also been a reason to expand businesses.
“The casino was our main economic driver. It supported our whole tribal government and tribal programs. When Grey Snow Management Solutions was launched, the directive was to diversify … the sustainable way and find businesses that are in alignment with our tribe’s strengths and then focus on that. Trying to figure out what that is and can it provide a similar form of revenue. And in agriculture when you do it in a regenerative way and a way that is tied more closely to Indigenous practices carries with that same profitability.”
Along with the new businesses, Olivia Brien, Iowa Tribe marketing and communications consultant and Iowa tribal member, says one of the positive impacts has been tribal pride in what they are doing.
“Ultimately what all these businesses are doing is increasing our sovereignty. It’s making it so our tribe has the potential to move into the future as a tribe that can compete and manage, that can hold their own government entity. What I’m seeing with all of these different enterprises is that people within our tribe are starting to get more excited about being a part of the tribe. Our tribe has a very small population actually living on the reservation, and then most of our tribal members live off the reservation. It’s providing opportunities for people to actually get a little bit more involved and just having a sense of pride that’s coming along with all of these enterprises that’s putting us on the map as a successful tribe.”
Brien also says the Iowa have begun working with other tribes to help them start their own goods and services so that all tribes can benefit. Vannett reiterated the impact on tribes.
“We want to meet with all of the tribes that we possibly can right now all throughout the nation to figure out how we can redevelop those little trade routes and not only physical goods but also from the services and making an impact in the way that tribes are represented in the state of Kansas.”
The Iowa are continuing to add more to benefit not only their own tribal citizens but the community as well. They recently acquired land in Nebraska that will become the Ioway Tribal National Park, which isn’t open to the public yet, but there are plans to make it a destination spot. They also acquired the Sac and Fox Mission outside of Highland, Kansas, that will be used as a museum and classroom space.
“These enterprises are allowing us to give the opportunity for our tribal members and other community members to participate in the culture, participate in so much of what has been removed from us,” Brien says.
The Iowa also sell Soje products and honey products at the Grandview Oil convenience store on the reservation. Brien adds that they “will be expanding the store to include a food market space so the public can purchase their meat and vegetables, which is very important because we’re actually in a food desert.”
The Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska are improving the lives of their own people as well as those of their community and through relationships with other tribes. Vannett says they welcome more dialogue to spread their message so others know who they are.
“People are like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know, or didn’t even begin to think’ that there’s a tribe in Kansas even though the state of Kansas got their name from the Kanza Tribe (Kaánze). So it’s part of the social narrative, and that’s what we’re really trying to change."