Reclaiming Indigenous Legacy One Beer at a Time

Reclaiming Indigenous Legacy One Beer at a Time

Native American-owned breweries are leaning into their heritage and expressing their Indigenous identities through their potent potables.

Editor’s Note: This story can also be found in the Fall 2020 issue of Life & Thyme Post, our quarterly newspaper exclusively for members. Get your copy.

As a kid, Jake Keyes was curious about the liquids his dad had patiently spent all day tending to in their family kitchen. It had a funky, bready aroma and an air of mystery. Unable to contain his eagerness to understand what this elixir was, he busted open a carboy of what would have been a carefully crafted homebrew and poked around in it.

When his dad caught him accidentally destroying his batch, he decided to use it as a teaching moment for his son. He spelled out why introducing new bacteria is a surefire way to ruin a beer, and explained what was going on underneath all the bubbles. In the brewing days that followed, Keyes became a keen and enthusiastic assistant. 

What started as a hobby for the duo has since morphed into an opportunity to do something Keyes is passionate about, while teaching pint lovers about his culture as an Ioway (or Iowa), a Native American tribal group now found in Oklahoma. 

Skydance Brewing Co. is part of a small, but growing, coalition of Native American-owned breweries, which includes 7 Clans Brewing, Indian Joe Brewing, Rincon Reservation Road Brewery, and Bow & Arrow Brewing Co., as well as others. 

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Jacob Keyes, owner of Skydance Brewing Co.

Although found in dissimilar locales and operated by individuals with various tribal affiliations ranging from Cherokee to Luiseño to Navajo and beyond, each of the businesses have a couple commonalities: they’re working to educate the public about their heritage, and they’re expressing and reclaiming their Indigenous identities through their lagers and ales. 

Because Keyes’ shares space in a co-op with other breweries in Oklahoma City (although he hopes to open his own tap room soon), he’s more limited in how he can display his history—there’s just not the space. Most of his teaching comes through the naming of his signature suds. Christened with titles like Fancy Dance, Lighthorse IPA, Rez Dog, and Sovereign Nation, his beverage names have special meaning for his people. 

Because fancy dances are colorful and extravagant shows of athleticism (they’re what most non-natives often picture when they think of pow wows, although there are many kinds of dances), Keyes’ corresponding beer is a bright New England IPA with brilliant fruit and citrus notes. He wanted something that was bold, that would be both an appropriate homage and an explainer. Changing, or perhaps, more appropriately, correcting those images non-natives have about Native Americans, is how Keyes offers history lessons by way of his beer labels. 

“I want people to know—to understand—that Native Americans are real, that we’re here now and aren’t just something that happened in history,” Keyes says. “I think when a lot of people think about Native Americans, they’re thinking of two hundred years ago; and I want them to know what our culture and reality is like now. When people drink our beers, they’re getting a better understanding that these are people who are living in today’s world and doing modern things—like making beer—but are also living that culture, right now, in this day and time.”

Morgan Owle-Crisp—Cherokee citizen, brewer, and owner of 7 Clans Brewing in Cherokee, North Carolina—echoes that philosophy. The secondary mission of her operation, after selling beer, is reminding beer enthusiasts that Native Americans exist. 

“We’re real people with everyday lives, but we still practice our culture and look for ways to honor our tradition,” Owle-Crisp says. 

Morgan Owle-Crisp, owner of 7 Clans Brewing

There’s much debate about when and how beer was introduced to Native Americans. Some believe tribes have been making mellow fermented beverages for a millennium, but hops weren’t introduced to Native Americans until Europeans came over, so it wouldn’t have been beer in the traditional sense. 

Regardless of ingredients and introduction, there has been historical scrutiny of Native Americans’ relationship to alcohol. Part of that apprehensiveness branches from the stereotype that Native Americans are prone to alcoholism, a myth rooted in laws enacted by the U.S. government to prohibit Indigenous peoples from consuming alcohol.

For hundreds of years, newcomers told Indigenous people what they could and could not do with alcohol through various federal Native American alcohol policies and programs. Shortly after the American Revolution, Congress passed a series of laws specifically impacting the sale and consumption of alcohol on reservations. 

The law with the most lasting impact came with the creation of the position of Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1832. That office drafted legislation that said: “No ardent spirits shall be hereafter introduced, under any pretense, into the Indian country.” That law set the groundwork for penalties on the sale, barter or trade of any intoxicating liquid on tribal lands, as well as Native Americans consuming alcohol off-reservation. Even after the 21st Amendment was passed in 1933 repealing Prohibition, it would still be another two decades before Native Americans were allowed to purchase or possess alcohol. 

It wasn’t until after World War II that Native American veterans pushing for the right to consume alcohol were heard. In 1953, Congress acknowledged the liquor law was discriminatory and that if Native Americans were expected to be U.S. citizens, and therefore serve in the Armed Forces should they be called to, then they shouldn’t be held to different legislation surrounding alcohol consumption. 

While the trope that Native Americans are powerless to alcohol isn’t based in reality and has proven to be a racist stereotype, it is one which has shaped many communities’ uneasiness to interact or be associated with alcohol at all. 

Keyes says he was initially nervous that the intoxicating nature of his business would be a point of contention for some in his community. Alcohol isn’t allowed on Ioway trust lands; Keyes’s territory is dry. It’s up to tribal nations to decide whether or not they’d prefer to maintain this prohibition. 

However, two years since Skydance Brewing Co.’s inception, the support he’s received has been dazzling. Many of the nearby casinos have his beers on tap—in some bars, his tap handles claim over half of the available real estate. Similarly, Rincon Reservation Road Brewing in Funner, California, which is associated with the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, opened directly on tribal lands as an economic arm of their casino. The brewery sees it as an exciting venture and a way to create new jobs within the taproom. 

But Owle-Crisp says her decision to open a brewery was met with a different reaction. “At first, I think it was very shocking,” Owle-Crisp says. “Our culture is so sacred, as is our language and our stories. Like most tribes, we experienced outsiders trying to eradicate that and take it away. There’s a huge fight to preserve everything that we can.”

Given how important Native American stories are, what was initially off-putting to her critics was that she was using the medium of alcohol, something that’s been banned from Cherokee tribal lands for over two hundred years, to share them with the outside world. 

For her, it’s about reclaiming her story as their own. “Understanding what my ancestors have endured and treasuring the history, language and culture of my tribe is important to me,” Owle-Crisp says. “Owning my own business allows me an outlet to express that.” 

There has been a long history of the beer industry using Native American iconography and naming to market products. John Hohenadel Brewery, which operated in Philadelphia from 1935 to 1953, had beer called and depicting an Indian Queen. And Narragansett Brewing Company, based in Rhode Island, formerly featured an advertising campaign fronted by “Chief Gansett,” a caricature drawn by Dr. Seuss sporting a feathered headdress and carrying a tomahawk, just to name a few. 

Although, like major sports teams, including the former Washington Redskins and food brands, such as Land O’Lakes, breweries who have used Native American imagery on their labels have been quick to change course in recent years. 

Just this summer, the Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., the nation’s seventh oldest operating brewery, announced it would retire the image of a Native American woman who has been used on its label since the 1930s. Their website states she was originally included to pay tribute to the Santee Sioux and Ojibwe tribes of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, where the brewery is based. Whether or not the decision was made due to societal pressure has yet to be said. Company President Dick Leinenkugel released a statement that stated the brewery had decided to update the “look and feel” of the brand. The Leinenkugel’s website states they will roll out new imagery this year and into 2021. As of the publication of this article, the woman’s profile was still on the brewery’s website homepage in nearly a dozen places. 

“A lot of times, you’ll see non-natives use this kind of imagery for their sports teams or other products, and it’s in a way that’s not accurately depicting Native Americans,” Keyes says of the stereotypes used. “And it’s because they don’t come from a place of understanding of what our culture is really about.”

Owle-Crisp was encouraged to include more Indigenous iconography on her labels for that very reason. She said one day, early on, she’d been scrolling through Untappd, a popular beer tracking app, and was blown away by the number of beers she found that commodified her culture, but had no relation to it. 

“There was no education attached to it; it didn’t benefit other Native people,” Owle-Crisp says. “I realized then that I have to do this, to show something real about us, when all these other breweries aren’t.”

Her hope was that she’d get others to cease appropriating her culture by using imagery that’s meaningful to her people on her products and allowing it to be a springboard for discussion about who had the rights to those depictions. 

“Other people have been telling our story for us, and it’s not an accurate one,” Keyes says. “It’s important that we have Native American entrepreneurs tell our story for ourselves. For us to reclaim it.”

“Reclaim,” Owle-Crisp says, has in recent years become a buzzword nationwide amongst Native Americans—reclaiming their lands, reclaiming their languages, reclaiming their practices. 

“A huge part of our stories and culture were passed down orally,” Owle-Crisp explains. “Thousands of our people died in the forced removal, and those that remained were forced into boarding schools for speaking our language. The government tried to erase our existence and strip us of everything that made us Cherokee. There have been so many losses to Native people, and yet we are still here, through determination and perseverance. Every time we speak our language, tell our stories, sing, bead, carve, etcetera, we are actively reclaiming our traditions.”

Part of the reason the brewers think non-natives don’t have much understanding of what it means to be Indigenous is because older generations of Native Americans often felt it was important to keep their culture somewhat secretive and protected from the rest of the world. 

A lot of that secretiveness stemmed from fear of loss. For centuries, colonial powers worked to reduce and relocate Native Americans, architecting a system where white settlers could take Indigenous ancestral lands as their own. Eventually, tribes were forced onto reservations as part of the Indian Appropriations Act of 1851. There, their autonomy, ability to provide for themselves, and capacity to carry on their traditions was severely limited. 

In the years that followed, additional government policies stripped even more from the Native Americans in an effort to assimilate them. Their children were sent to far-away boarding schools where they were forced to abandon their names, language, and culture in an effort to eradicate their Indigenous ideologies and become “Americanized.” Even as recently as the seventies, when the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed, there were federal policies in place that prevented tribes from fully practicing their religious ceremonies. 

Now, Native American-owned breweries say it’s paramount that they reclaim their culture from exploitation. 

“It’s important that we put our culture out there now, so people are more educated and have a better understanding of who we are and our importance to society,” Keyes says. 

Like Skydance Brewing Co., many of the other breweries use names that harken to their experiences as Native Americans. Rincon Reservation Road Brewing, for instance, has a blueberry saison called Tuupash, inspired by the Luiseño word for “sky,” as well as an amber ale called Red Rattler that’s an ode to the red diamond rattlesnake that lives on their reservation in Southern California. 

Some of the breweries use ingredients native to their reservations or have historical importance to their people. 7 Clans incorporates corn into their blonde ale, not for taste, but for symbolism. Owle-Crisp says she wanted to craft a beer in honor of Selu, the First Woman and mother of corn for the Cherokee people. Similarly, Rincon Reservation Road has used locally-sourced honey, sage and elderberries in their brews.

“I hope that when people see our beers on shelves, it’ll inspire them to look deeper into our stories to understand we’re so much more than stereotypes they may have been told,” Owle-Crisp says.

For Keyes, the greater goal is to craft a new way forward for other Native American-owned breweries and entrepreneurs. 

“It’s really important for us to show them that there are Native Americans who are entrepreneurs who are living their dreams and doing things that aren’t as traditional, like gaming,” Keyes says. “Being an example for our tribal members and other Natives is a huge part of the drive for us.” 

Keyes says he’s noticed that his peers grew up in a culture of not feeling like business ownership or entrepreneurship was an attainable goal; the people they knew just weren’t doing it. 

One of his biggest missions is showing other Native Americans that they can chase their dreams and become an entrepreneur. So they too can reclaim their own image.

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