Navajo ranchers are a hard-working lot, sitting tall in the saddle keeping an eye on roving range cattle—and now that hard work is starting to pay off. Quality grass-fed beef has now found its way into the newly-opened Twin Arrows casino, and other Indian gaming operations are taking a closer look at this Native-raised prime product.
“We’re an independent people, but we’ve worked together on this project,” says Gene Shepherd (Navajo), foreman of the 60,000-acre Padres Mesa Ranch on reservation land in Chambers, Arizona. His site is called a demonstration ranch because it acts as a training model for others to study.
A Navajo cattlehand
Ranching families have long struggled to make a living by raising livestock often sold to cattle brokers who bought Native calves as cheaply as possible. The current mission aims to raise high quality beef and then get it bought at a price that’s fair for all the work necessary to get it to market.
One of the ranches observing the prototype lessons is 14R in the New Lands area (Nahata D’zhil) where 81 permit holders share 360,000-acres of grazing land under the leadership of ranch president Al Pahi. (New Lands is a section of the reservation set aside for Navajos relocated from Hopi partitioned lands).
“We show relocatees good ranching practices to elevate the standards of raising cattle,” says Pahi. “We’ve got 14 range units, about 25,000 acres per unit, where permittees are allowed up to 30 head of cattle,” he says, adding: “Our beef grazes naturally and feeds on a particular type of sage shrub that brings lots of protein and other nutrients as well as adding special flavor to our meat.”
Because Indian-owned casino restaurants have a growing need for quality meats—and because there are about 20 gaming facilities in Arizona with more across the border in New Mexico, the new Native American Beef Marketing Program aims to sell fairly-priced Navajo-raised beef to Native-owned casinos to feed hungry tourists.
In addition to Arizona’s Twin Arrows Casino, Navajo beef can be found at the Nation’s Fire Rock and Northern Edge Casino properties in New Mexico as well as the Apache tribes Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino and Resort in Ruidoso.
This new business model came about when food distributor Labatt Food Service, a billion-dollar-a-year company, tenth largest food distributor in the county, created the Native American Beef brand based on an earlier program in New Mexico where they took ranch cattle, processed the beef and sold it to restaurants. This time they’re taking premium Navajo source-verified beef and marketing it to Indian casinos, creating an economic engine that never existed before, replacing the old cycle where cash-short ranchers were frequently forced to sell livestock under market value.
“If we buy half a million dollars worth of cattle, that money starts with the rancher and provides him a sustainable livable wage and from there it just multiplies and ends up building things like stores and schools on the reservation,” says Lebatt Chief Operating Officer Al Silva.
“Some of the 14R Ranch permittees had never had a lump sum $10,000 check in their hands…ever. Now they’ll get one every year and with it they can fix their vehicles and feed their families. They can buy higher quality cattle. And they can repeat that cycle endlessly. We were blessed when the Navajo Nation and the casinos decided to buy beef from this program. Without that collaboration, we’d be left with just a potentially good idea.”
One reason the Indian rancher/Indian casino connection is expected to prosper under Labatt’s leadership is the fact that there’s more than just reservation-grown ribeye. “Native American casinos are great customers, but they don’t have a need for all parts of the cow,” says distributor spokesman James Dublin. “They can use the steaks, but don’t have a need for other parts. We can find a home for every muscle, splitting the animal between Native casinos and elsewhere in our customer base.
“There’s a strong sense that this unique partnership program could move much more deeply into the Navajo Nation because they have so much land, there’s no need to over-graze. Cattle can be gently relocated without damaging landscape or stressing the animal, similar to what the Japanese do with their highly-praised Kobe beef.”
Included in the Labatt company marketing efforts is a quote taken right out of Indian country—“Buying Indian in this case isn’t about acts or laws, it’s about action.”