Hyperlocal Fare Is the Best Bet at This Native American Casino

Oklahoma’s Downstream Casino features cattle and crops of the Quapaw Nation

Next to ringing slot machines with names like Buffalo Gal and Spartacus Gladiator of Rome at Oklahoma’s Downstream Casino sits a small glass case displaying dry-aged beef and a vertical herb garden. It’s an ad for local food produced nearby, some a stone’s throw from the casino’s parking lot.

The Quapaw Nation, the Native American tribe that owns the casino and the adjacent hotel, has something most gaming establishments don’t: 1,000 cattle, 200 bison, six greenhouses, 100 beehives, a meat processing facility, and a coffee roasting plant. The greenhouses are pesticide-free and renowned livestock industry consultant Temple Grandin designed part of the cattle facility.

John Berrey, chairman of the Quapaw Nation, is the man behind the efforts. He’s a fourth-generation rancher, but wasn’t necessarily driven to create a better food system. For Berrey, it started with an economic opportunity.

“We want to tap into the farm-to-table scene,” Berrey said.

Downstream’s high-end restaurant, Red Oak Steakhouse, serves beef from the tribe’s herd; honey from the beehives goes into a beer brewed on-site; and the greenhouses produce over 200 types of herbs and flowers used in their food, their spa, and the casino’s decorations.

The goals, however, have grown from drawing customers to the casino. Since Berrey bought the first greenhouses in 2013, the tribe now uses its local food resources to serve 400-plus meals a day to tribal members and non-Native locals alike.

“Quapaws come first for sure,” Berrey said. “But not far behind is everybody else.”

In some ways, the Quapaw are merely doing what they’ve always done. “It’s in our DNA,” Berrey said. “The history of our tribe is being both hunters and farmers.” The Quapaw lived along the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, where the fertile soil let them become experts in growing large amounts of food. Once Europeans arrived in the region, the Quapaw used these skills to form strategic alliances with the French, who relied on game and crops provided by Native provisioners and offered both trade and military support in return.

As historian Morris Arnold noted in his book on the Quapaws, “The Rumble of a Distant Drum,” “early visitors reported that the Quapaws made three different corn crops a year,” indicating a considerable amount of experimentation on their part.” Diarists like Henri Joutel, who visited the tribe’s homelands along the Arkansas River in the 1680s, were impressed by the variety of fruits and vegetables they grew in their fields, and the possibility of trading for these goods inspired the French to establish its first post in the lower valley here, among the Quapaws.

In the present, these traditional imperatives inform the Quapaws’ efforts to produce and distribute food to the community as a whole, not just other Native communities. “There is a lot of heritage behind it,” said the casino’s executive chef, Greg Bolton, who connects the tribe’s goal of vertically integrating its business to broader considerations like food and land sovereignty. “We are doing it ourselves and can be more self-supportive on our own ground.”

This is something that connects them to other Native American groups across the country, who have identified land as the crucial component for improving the self-sufficiency and health of indigenous communities. According to Valerie Segrest, director of the Muckleshoot Food Sovereignty Project in Washington State, “the environment is what shapes and forms our culture, so if we can start taking better control and empowering ourselves with our own wellness by eating our [native] foods, by being active on the land — all of those things — reciprocity happens.”

This approach is especially important to Native communities, which are disproportionately affected by problems of food access. Because they often reside in places with few remaining resources or poor access to infrastructure, Native Americans are more likely than any other group to develop diabetes during their lifetime and twice as likely to have diabetes than white Americans, with 15 percent of all Native Americans receiving a diabetes diagnosis. These predispositions result from a diet of highly processed foods that are cheaper and easier to find in rural markets, which in turn leads to high rates of obesity and even chronic conditions like heart disease and kidney failure.

But Berrey and the Quapaw don’t distinguish between Native and non-Native recipients when discussing the overall goal of community development and food sovereignty. The conditions that create health issues in Native communities are similar to those that keep most rural Americans in a state of nutritional insecurity.

“People don’t realize that a lot of Americans are going hungry every night,” Berrey said. “Or they just get crap. A friend of mine calls them ‘food-like substances,’ [like] chips or soda. So that drove a lot of it.”

The tribe buys bulk staples like potatoes, rice, and vegetables from wholesale suppliers and redistributes them through food banks, backpack programs for children, and “farmers markets,” which are more like pop-up outlet stores than the artisanal cornucopia that many urban dwellers might expect. Instead, people find items like bags of potatoes or rice at deeply discounted prices.

Through the farmers markets — as well as running a federally funded Title VI program that feeds Quapaw tribal members 55 years or older, working with churches that have food outreach programs, and donating to nearby school systems — the tribe distributes around 50 tons of food per year.

Twice a year, the tribe also donates food to 14 different food banks, once in the summer and then again at the end of November. Berrey explained that these donations are timed to replenish the food banks after their busiest weeks of the year. “After Thanksgiving, a lot of food banks are wiped out,” Berrey said. “We try to focus on the non-holiday periods that are the most dire.”

This view of the bigger picture has helped the Quapaw to merge socially focused initiatives with sound business practices, which most often appear in opposition to one another but Berrey sees as symbiotic.

The bigger picture includes taking time to host four or five different tribes each month that want to learn from the Quapaws. Some visit more than once. The Quapaws offer resources including successful and unsuccessful grant applications, blueprints, planning documents, and tours of the facilities. Some groups have managed to start or expand tribal agriculture — The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe grows corn and beans. The Navajo Nation accounts for 62 percent of farmers in Arizona. The Blackfeet Nation has cattle.

Other groups that have visited are still working on getting something up and running, which Berrey said can be difficult with tribes that have frequent turnover in leadership. The Quapaws will continue to help, even other nearby tribes with casinos that could be considered competitors. The overall mission of food sovereignty and community resilience outweighs those concerns.

“Helping our neighbors helps ourselves,” he said.

Nick Foreman teaches food history at Oregon State University. Jackie Snow is a freelance journalist published by NYT, National Geographic, and others.

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