On the surface, Oklahoma’s Downstream Casino Resort looks like any other: lines of brightly lit slot machines snake past entrances to steakhouses and sports bars, while cocktail waitresses shuttle trays to craps and blackjack tables. A takeaway cafe serves gourmet coffee, and an all-you-can-eat buffet is stacked with prime rib on Saturday nights.  

But beneath this familiar facade is a very different kind of system — one that applies traditional Indigenous food and farming principles to modern hotel operations. The Quapaw tribe, which runs the Downstream Casino Resort, operates seven greenhouses and two sprawling gardens that provide the hotel with 20 varieties of vegetables and herbs. The tribe also has an apiary with 80 beehives, as well as a craft brewery and a coffee roaster that supplies the hotel and casino. The Quapaw is also the only tribe in the United States with its own USDA-certified meat packing and processing plant, where it processes bison and cattle that it raises on open pastures, selling the bulk of it to the casino’s five restaurants. (The rest is provided to the two tribal-run daycares, the Quapaw Farmers Market, the Quapaw Mercantile and a few other tribally-run shops.) 

Cattle grazing on pastureland behind the Downstream Casino Resort. Photo courtesy Downstream Casino Resort

With all these businesses — plus a construction firm — the Quapaw Nation is one of the largest employers in this part of Oklahoma, employing 2,000 tribal and non-tribal workers, while paying above-average wages and offering a full benefits package to all full-time employees. It’s a business model that preserves cultural heritage while providing a profit. 

Lucus Setterfield, director of food and beverage at Downstream, says 50 percent of the food served at the resort’s Red Oak Steakhouse comes from the Quapaw land. Even the mint in the restaurant’s mojitos is grown in the greenhouses.  

“The Quapaw are one of the most innovative tribes in the country when it comes to food sovereignty,” says Maria Givens, the communications director of the Native American Agricultural Fund (NAAF). 

Innovative as it may be, the Quapaw are essentially resurrecting a way of life — living off the land that sustained them before they were driven off of it by American settlers. Colonization — and the policies that created Indian reservations — deprived them of their traditional foodways of foraging, fishing and hunting and disrupted their long-established patterns of intense physical activity. Public health experts believe that these are two of the reasons Indigenous people have some of the highest rates of diabetes in the U.S. According to the CDC, Native American adults are three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than white adults, and 1.6 times more likely to be obese

With seven greenhouses and two gardens, the Quapaw gardeners harvest about 6,000 pounds of food per year. Each morning, the resort’s chefs stop by and place their orders. Photo courtesy Downstream Casino Resort

By retrofitting a modern resort with a system of locally sourced, sustainably raised food, the Quapaw are reclaiming their food sovereignty and, at the same time, benefitting every guest who visits their resort, whether those guests know it or not.

Bringing bison back

It all started in 2010 when then tribe chairman John Berrey, a fifth-generation cattle rancher, had a vision to reintroduce bison to this part of Oklahoma. The bison is the state mammal, but it’s also a traditional food for the Quapaw people, who lived in Northeastern Arkansas and then western Missouri before eventually moving to Oklahoma.

That year, the tribe was given eight bison from Yellowstone National Park via the InterTribal Buffalo Council. Now, ten years later, the tribe has a bison herd of close to 200 as well as a herd of 385 Black Angus cattle. (The bison have been breeding, but the tribe has also gotten additional bison from other national parks.) Both are pastured on fields of native grasses and the ones that are headed for slaughter are finished on grains and mushrooms. The tribe processes only five to 15 bison per year and doesn’t slaughter until they’ve sold out of every type of meat: steaks, ground bison, chuck roast and bison jerky. “We use the whole animal,” explains Quapaw Nation grants coordinator Shelby Crum — even the hides, which a Quapaw artist decorates with tribal paintings and sells at the farmers’ market. 

The 25,000-square-foot meatpacking plant, which opened in 2017, was designed to conform to renowned animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin’s blueprint for humane animal handling. The Quapaw built the processing plant adjacent to the feeding facility to avoid the need for transport, which makes animals nervous. It also uses Grandin’s designs for curved chutes with high walls, which minimizes stressors, and the holding pens include extra crowd gates and bright colors. In addition to processing its own animals, the plant processes 50 to 60 head of cattle per week for nearby ranchers from Oklahoma and Missouri. 

A worker processes honey from one of the resort’s 80 beehives. Photo courtesy Downstream Casino Resort

The meat is broken apart into different cuts, smoked, flavored and packaged right there at the facility, which also has freezers and coolers for storage. Most is sold at a discounted price at tribally-owned retail outlets like the Quapaw Mercantile, the farmers’ market, the Quapaw C-Store and the Downstream Q-Store. “The whole goal is to make it affordable,” Crum says. That said, anyone from any state can order the meat via the Quapaw Cattle Company’s online store