Local chef discusses how entrepreneurship lifted her family out of crisis
Local chef Kim Tilsen-Brave Heart discusses how entrepreneurship can help build economies on reservations — and how it lifted her own family out of crisis.
SPEARFISH, S.D. — As a 5th generation entrepreneur, Kim Tilsen-Brave Heart says that starting and running businesses has always been a part of her identity. Tilsen-Brave Heart has helped launch over 187 small businesses across the country, with a focus on developing economies on Native American reservations.
After a medical emergency changed her family’s life, Tilsen-Brave Heart and her husband decided to launch their own catering company in order to pull themselves out of crisis.
Tilsen-Brave Heart’s business, Et-i-quette Catering, specializes in putting a modern twist on traditional Lakota recipes.
In its first year alone, the business has been hugely successful. They’ve not only done events for local clients and organizations, but also catered for internationally recognized names, including the Waltons, the president of Oakley sunglasses, and Yale University.
“My whole life I kind of believed that I was going to run my own business,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart. “And I like the freedom that it gives you … to be able to be a parent and a mother, but also to really dictate what I want to be, and who I interact with and how I want to impact my people and my community.”
Although it’s flourishing now, the business was initially created out of hardship.
Two years ago, right after their third baby was born, Tilsen-Brave Heart’s husband had a grand mal seizure. The family says he had no prior history of epilepsy and there was no warning.
“Our life literally just stopped,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart. “And I really didn’t know what to do … He wasn’t allowed to work out even, go to school, work, drive, be alone ever. And most of my job before that was traveling quite a bit to different tribes around the region.”
On top of everything, Tilsen-Brave Heart says she could see her husband slipping into depression after the seizure.
Eventually the couple sat down to talk about what they were going to do and came up with the idea for Et-i-quette.
“It [cooking] is kind of the one thing that really connects he and I, commonality wise,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart. “And I said, ‘why don’t we start a catering company that’s really based in our values and our culture and our knowledge of food?’”
While on a personal level the business has helped lift Tilsen-Brave Heart and her family out of crisis, she says it also has value in the larger community by showcasing Native American culture in a field where it’s not always visible.
“I have a deep belief that — not just native people, but people in general, even women specifically — that if you don’t see it, it’s hard to believe it,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart. “And a lot of times, especially on the reservation, what we see is people pushing you to become a teacher or become a nurse. And you can see that most people go to school to be a teacher or a nurse in the native community. So why not show, and showcase, other opportunities?”
Tilsen-Brave Heart says the problem of invisibility has far-reaching consequences and entrepreneurism is one way to address it.
“I really think that we need to start having visibility. To show that for one we still exist — I know that sounds really crazy, but … if you even look into a store, take your child to a toy store, there’s no toys that look like her,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart.
“Visibility is incredibly powerful and I also believe that invisibility is a last step in achieving full genocide,” she continued. “And so that impact of visibility, of saying to people that ‘I can be anything that I want to be, and I can be a doctor, I can be an entrepreneur, I can be a chef, I can be a designer, I can be an events director, whatever it is, is incredibly powerful for native community. I also think that highlighting the success of native entrepreneurs is also incredibly impactful and powerful for young native people to see that we do matter and that our story is important.”
Beyond visibility, Tilsen-Brave Heart says entrepreneurship also has a real economic impact for reservations, where high unemployment and low-income levels have posed serious challenges.
“When I first moved back to Pine Ridge, and the reason why I moved back was that, Pine Ridge is one of the poorest communities in America. They consider it the poorest community next to Haiti in the Western Hemisphere. We have the lowest life expectancy for men and for women across any nationality,” said Tilsen-Brave Heart. “With entrepreneurship, the dollar can turn over and over in that community to create economic stimulation and growth … And it also teaches children a way out of poverty. And when you haven’t been given any financial assets, entrepreneurship is a way for you to grow into your own financial gain and assets so you can garner wealth as well.”
Tilsen-Brave Heart says the business now has a storefront with a private dining room and commercial kitchen in Rapid City. Her husband was the main force behind building it. Additionally, he’s been able to return to school while also helping with the company part-time.
Tilsen-Brave Heart shared her story with students at Black Hills State University as part of American Indian Awareness Week. You can learn more about the annual event here.
(An earlier version of this story contained an error in the title incorrectly stating ‘poverty’ instead of ‘crisis.’)