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Indigenous businesses in Arizona can apply for 1st USDA tribal trade mission to Canada

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, or FAS, recently announced a first-of-its-kind trade mission to Vancouver, Canada, this summer. 

It’s aimed at spotlighting tribal products, and interest is mounting among Arizona’s tribal agribusinesses ahead of the upcoming application deadline. 

“The ‘Skinwalker’ style is always my favorite. I love a little kick on my barbeque,” said Michael John, owner and creator of the Valley-based Navajo Mike’s condiment brand. 

A chef for 15 years until losing his job during the pandemic, John shifted to sauce-making with flavors from the Southwest. He’s been selling an assortment of sauces ever since.

“When you look online, I haven’t seen a Southwest-style BBQ sauce, you got Kansas City,” added John. “I’m just trying to make something, kind of a staple for our region.” 

Now, he’s hoping to take his products to the Great White North as a part of the USDA’s inaugural tribal trade delegation in June. 

Delegations typically range between 5 and 15 businesses. At least five trade missions are taken annually. Vendors travel all around the world. Some recent trips abroad included Chile, Panama, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan and the Netherlands.

More than $110 million in projected 12-month sales resulted among businesses that participated in USDA trade missions during 2022 and 2023. But total exports of agricultural products to Canada generated more than $28 billion last year alone. 

However, this trade mission is only specializing in tribal food products. The concept emerged from a long-standing partnership between FAS and the Intertribal Agriculture Council, or IAC.

The American Indian Foods program at IAC began through a contract with FAS in 1998, with the idea to develop a platform where Indigenous-made food products and their cultures can be showcased around the world.

Five years prior, IAC finished testing and developing the “MADE/PRODUCED BY AMERICAN INDIANS” trademark. 

More than 500 products or companies have registered for that trademark since its launch in 1993. About a fifth are still active users today, they're listed under its directory.

“It’s a way that companies can prove authenticity,” said Latashia Redhouse, the American Indian Foods director, adding that any individual tribal member or tribal enterprise from one of the 574 federally-recognized tribes across Indian Country are eligible to apply for free.

“But the value of it is that we’re able to increase the economic base,” added Redhouse. “We attend trade shows from Dubai, to Singapore and Canada. There's a huge consumer awareness around the trademark.” 

This official designation must be renewed annually by the product or company, hence why that trademark count has dropped. On top of that, Redhouse explained that a lot of them decided “not to continue their business because of COVID challenges.” 

“That was something that we saw, and part of the outcome of the pandemic,” said Redhouse. “Even though there was a celebration around food and taking care of the community. It really impacted our small business, tribal companies or entrepreneurs.” 

Coordinating this tribal trade mission is that next step toward “advancing in more of that global marketplace, and providing that cultural exchange on an international level,” in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Redhouse also pressed that Native American producers should be “represented in the global dialogue, because some of our stakeholders are very interested in tapping into that economic opportunity that sits in trade.” 

Intertribal Agriculture Council’s CEO Kari Jo Lawrence told KJZZ News in a statement that she and her team are “excited to work with USDA FAS to provide tribal producers with opportunities to build new business partnerships, increase export sales, and strengthen Native food systems.” 

Arizona, in particular, can greatly benefit from this new business opportunity. 

Navajo Mike’s is one of nine certified agribusinesses in Arizona with the “MADE/PRODUCED BY AMERICAN INDIANS” trademark. Arizona has the nation’s second-highest concentration of current trademarks among states, only behind Washington. 

Half of all states are home to at least one IAC-trademarked product or business, with almost 100 registered nationwide. By comparison, the neighboring states of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, match Arizona with a total of nine active trademarks combined.

John is optimistic, not only for his chances to participate in this first-ever trade mission, but also the opportunity to do so alongside other notable Arizona brands, like Ramona Farms of the Gila River Indian Community, Val’s Frybread and Native Ground Coffee from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, to name a few. 

“Introducing these new products to their communities of North America, you know, first time in Canada, check out these products, I think there will be a very good marketing opportunity for that,” said John. “I think definitely, it’ll be just as good if not better than what you know what we're doing here in the States.” 

Raised in southeastern Utah with her Diné roots, as a member of the Navajo Nation, Redhouse has a soft spot for the Southwest, but insisted that this historic opportunity is open to the rest of Indian Country.

“There’s definitely room for the Southwest,” said Redhouse, “and any region across the U.S. to be well-represented and celebrated.”

The first-round review of applicants will be administered by IAC, to certify the trademark, and then FAS determines the final delegation in May, before departing that following month. USDA Undersecretary for Trade and Foreign Agricultural Affairs Alexis M. Taylor will lead the mission from June 17 to 20. 

The deadline to apply for this trade mission to Canada is Friday, March 8. 

More stories from KJZZ

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.