Sign up for our newsletter

Before European settlers came to what we now call the Ohio River Valley, the Dehiga Sioux were on the move. Migrating west out of the Ohio River Valley, the large group came across the Mississippi River. A dense fog rolled in and the people attempted to cross the river holding onto a grapevine. The vine snapped in the middle of the river and a group floated downstream. This tribe became known as the O-Gah-Pah, the downstream people, and settled near the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers, near present-day Pine Bluff, Arkansas. 

In the 1520s, Spanish explorer Hernan DeSoto saw five miles of cultivated agriculture when he visited the O-Gah-Pahs. The tribe has historically called themselves O-Gah-Pah, the downstream people, but are now known as the Quapaw Tribe. The Quapaws had a thriving local food system in Arkansas with row crops and vegetables. They hunted bison and deer for protein. Their life was with the land and with the help of the land, they fed themselves well. 

However, like many tribes in the South, the Quapaws were forced to relocate to Indian Territory in 1834, what we now call Oklahoma. With the removal from their ancestral territory also came the removal of the healthy local food system they had built.  

The Vision

490 years after DeSoto witnessed the Quapaw’s five miles of cultivated fields, in 2010, the Quapaw tribe entered a new era of food sovereignty. The recently built Downstream Casino, owned and operated by the Tribe, was succeeding despite the national recession. 

Quapaw Chairman John Berrey, a 5th generation cattle rancher, had a vision of food self-sufficiency. He wanted to see what DeSoto saw nearly 500 years ago. Berrey wanted to start by bringing bison back to his people. 

“We got a few people around a table and started talking about bison,” Berrey told the Daily Yonder. In 2010, those discussions with the Tribe’s Business Council led to purchasing 5 bison to start the tribal herd. 

“While [the bison herd-ed.] started as a cultural effort, there was more we could do once the animals came onto the property,” said Chris Roper, director of the Quapaw Tribe’s Agriculture Department.

Berrey and Roper, both from long lines of ranchers, quickly saw the potential of a tribally controlled, local food system. The casino restaurants, particularly the Red Oak Steakhouse, served as a critical endpoint of this local food chain. 

“The goal was to vertically integrate everything we could,” Berrey explained. As historic agrarians, this shift to tribal control and a vertically integrated food system was nothing new. “It was going back to our roots,” Roper said. 

But serving the community always came first. Meals for elders and community members had to take precedent over gaining a profit. With this vision of moving forward while staying rooted in Quapaw cultural traditions, the Tribe began to plant the seeds. 

In 2013, the Casino bought four greenhouses to start growing herbs and vegetables for its restaurants. The operation has expanded to six 30’ by 90’ greenhouses with plans to build two more. The greenhouses grow 21 varieties of herbs and vegetables, including ceremonial corn varieties, and tobacco. The greenhouses supply all the herbs for the entire casino food and beverage operation. Even the mint in the mojitos at the bar is grown by the tribe. 

Four of the tribe’s six greenhouses, photo courtesy of Dawn Wormington

The team at the greenhouse produces over 8,000 pounds of food every year.  Dawn Wormington, the Horticulture Supervisor for the greenhouses, said: “The whole reason we’re out here is to save money.” The Red Oak Steakhouse in the Downstream Casino gets 40% of their vegetable needs from the greenhouses and works six weeks ahead to plant for future menus. “If the chefs have an idea, we work with them to make it a reality,” she told the Daily Yonder. 

Lucus Setterfield, Director of Food and Beverage for the Downstream Casino, says “starting with the greenhouses was the smartest thing we did. Everything starts at our greenhouses, it lives and breathes and began at the greenhouse.” Setterfield, who started at Downstream Casino as a chef 12 years ago, has seen the local food initiative grow from an idea into a thriving food system. 

Herbs and vegetables at the greenhouses, photo courtesy of Dawn Wormington

It didn’t stop with bison and greenhouses. In 2014, the tribe launched the Quapaw Cattle Company with 75 head of Black Angus cows. The tribal cattle herd has grown to 1,200 today. 

The Missing Link

But something in the middle was missing. 

The tribe was serving locally raised beef in the casino, but it had to get shipped to Colorado for processing, then to Kansas City for dry aging, and then back to Northeast Oklahoma just to be eaten a few miles down the road from where it was raised. These transportation costs were eating away at their profits and it wasn’t in line with Chairman Berrey’s ideas of vertical integration. The tribe knew they had to build their own USDA certified meat processing plant. 

“Setting up the meat processing plant was the most difficult of all our efforts,” Roper told the Daily Yonder. The US Department of Agriculture takes meat processing seriously. Unfortunately, the USDA doesn’t have the best track record for tribal collaboration. When asked what the most challenging part of the food sovereignty effort was, Chairman Berrey said, “Trying to communicate with USDA. We are getting more acknowledgment within USDA to recognize us as valuable partners.”

While the Tribe was focusing its efforts on establishing its animal agriculture facilities, other branches were building new lines of business. Three ventures that focused on streamlining the food supply directly to the casino were: honey, beer, and coffee. 

As he was driving, Chairman Berrey came across 18 beehives for sale. He bought them and decided to start a honey bee operation. Every year since, the tribe has added more hives and now operates 75 hives in total. The honey operation at the greenhouses turned into a production line that flowed into casino food and beverage. “It blew me away how good fresh honey from our area was,” Setterfield said. 

Hops grown at the greenhouses used for Downstream Crafted, photo courtesy of Dawn Wormington

The tribe launched Downstream Crafted Brewing to utilize hops grown at the greenhouses and started onsite brewing. The tribally brewed beer costs half of what the big beer distributors charge. One of the 5 tribally brewed beers, the Honey Brown Bomber, uses honey from the greenhouses. Downstream Crafted accounts for 20 percent of all beer sold at the casino. 

There was a strategic opportunity for coffee as well. Every restaurant at the casino served coffee, all tribal departments and offices had a coffee pot on most of the day and coffee was a fixture at the tribally owned convenience store. The community was entrenched in coffee, but someone else was making money off the Quapaw coffee culture. 

Downstream Casino was spending thousands of dollars each month on coffee from outside suppliers. What started out as a cost savings project for the casino turned into a community staple. In 2016, the  O-Gah-Pah Coffee Company began operations and now their custom roasts are served at every tribal establishment, from the elder’s center to the Red Oak Steakhouse. 

O-Gah-Pah Coffee Company roasting the Downstream Blend, photo courtesy of the Quapaw Tribe

Meanwhile the tribe was plugging away at their livestock operation. Integrating its animal agriculture efforts was a beast of an effort. 

After three years of concentrated effort, in 2017, the Quapaw Tribe opened the first tribally-owned and operated cattle processing plant in the United States. As a USDA certified plant, the processing center is equipped to process beef, bison, goat, lamb, pork, and elk. It’s adjoining smokehouse turns the tribally raised beef and bison into jerky or pork into smoked bacon. Today it is still the only USDA certified meat processing facility on tribal lands. 

But cows need to beef up before they are processed. To facilitate this, the tribe built a feeding facility near the processing plant. The facility provides a variety of services for the tribal herd and other local herds like backgrounding, finishing, and breeding services via artificial insemination. The feeding facility uses tribally grown feed corn to fatten up the animals. 

With the tribal ranch, feeding facility, and processing plant, the cows and bison never had to leave the Quapaw’s corner of northeast Oklahoma. 

Red Oak Steakhouse is the landing point for this concerted effort. The steaks served at Red Oak never leave a 20-mile radius from where they are born. The salads are the result of meticulous decisions made by the chefs and the horticulture department months before the seeds are planted. The after-dinner coffee is roasted by the tribe down the road. “It’s not just farm to table, it’s seed to table,” Setterfield told the Yonder. 

The Full Circle

While the vertical integration for the Casino sourcing of food and beverage seemed well on its way, integrating it into the community was a separate effort. 

The 2018 Farm Bill authorized USDA to practice its government to government relationship with tribal nations through a tribe’s designated department of agriculture. The Quapaw Tribe quickly created a department of agriculture to oversee its many farm to table efforts. 

The tribe’s food sovereignty assessment showed that 90% of tribal members said they would attend a farmers market if there was one to go to. During the summer of 2019, the tribe started its first Farmers Market to bring all of these agricultural improvements directly to the community. For food not grown locally, the tribe sells it “at cost” meaning local families can get food at wholesale prices through the farmers market. 

The Quapaw Tribe shares within their tribal community and outside their community. The tribe donates thousands of pounds of food to food banks in the region. They host tours for groups interested in food and agriculture. Chairman Berrey freely gives out the blueprints for the processing facility to other tribes looking to build their own. Chairman Berrey’s advice to other tribes looking to build up their food system: “Quit watching and looking, just jump in and do it!” 

After ten years of diligent and backbreaking work to improve their local food system, the Quapaw tribe can say that they are taking care of their community. All the protein served in tribal elder meals on wheels programs is tribally raised and processed. The Red Oak Steakhouse only sources its herbs from the greenhouses, and the greenhouses supply 40% of the total vegetables at the restaurant. All coffee served at a tribal facility is from the O-Gah-Pah coffee company. All surplus from any of the food and agriculture businesses goes into elder programs, the schools, or to the community. Only after the Quapaw people have eaten everything, is the food sold for profit. 

“We have gone from a few people sitting around talking about how it’d be nice to raise some cows, to now having a large enterprise providing jobs,” Chairman Berrey reflects. “We’re giving hope to the community, it helps our mental health. We’ve got a future to look forward to.”

The Quapaw bison herd grazing near the raised beds at the greenhouses. Photo courtesy of Dawn Wormington

In 1520, the Quapaw Tribe had 5 miles of cultivated agricultural land. 

In 2020, the Quapaw Tribe has a bison herd of 300, a cattle herd of 1,200, six greenhouses, 2,000 acres of row crops, one  state of the art meat processing plant, one coffee company that roasts 16 different varieties, one brewery that makes five beers, and thousands of intangible connections between a community and its food system. When asked what’s next, Chairman Berrey paused and said flatly, “expansion… acre by acre.”