The story of who we are

Jo Caird looks at how beer can be an expression of history and identity for indigenous people around the world

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If we want our stories to be told – the story of who we are – then we have to be the ones that tell that story.” 

For Jacob Keyes, Skydance Brewing Co offers the opportunity to do just that. One of a handful of breweries launched around the world in recent years by people of indigenous heritage, Skydance is a celebration of Jacob’s Native American roots. A citizen of the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, the brewer references his culture in his brews – from Fancy Dance, a tribute to a style of dance “seen at modern day pow wows” to Sovereign Nation, a stout inspired by the early US government’s recognition of Native American tribes as sovereign nations with the ability to self-govern. 

But Skydance is about looking forward too. “In Native culture, not everybody feels like that’s their place to be a CEO, to have your own business. A lot of us are from rural areas. I grew up dirt poor and the idea of opening a business that might take a million dollars to open, that doesn't even seem possible for a lot of us,” Jacob explains. 

“And so the reason we really push that Native American branding is so that other Natives see somebody like them, a Native American, starting a business and living out their dream.” 

There’s “a lot of pride” in the brewery amongst his community, says Jacob, particularly in the fact that Skydance is one of very few – perhaps the only – Native American-owned brand stocked by supermarket chain Walmart in the state of Oklahoma. “To represent Native Americans like that was huge for me,” he says.  


Bobbi and Jacob, Skydance Brewing Co

Heavy historical baggage

Not that responses to these sorts of endeavours have been universally positive. When Morgan Crisp took the idea of Seven Clans, a brewery inspired by her Cherokee heritage, to the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, “it was quite an uproar,” she says. 

She had known it would be. “Tribal communities are so small, everybody's so passionate,” Morgan explains. Their concerns, around the appropriation of Cherokee iconography, particularly in association with alcohol, are valid, she believes. 

“Anytime anybody does anything with their heritage or their stories, it's like we're bracing for this cringe moment. And I haven't done that. I've been really authentic in my stories and how I feel about them and my journey.”

The historic prohibition of the sale of alcohol to Native American people – a racist, paternalist ban that lasted until 1953 – casts a long shadow. Several tribes, including Morgan’s, still prohibit or limit the purchase of alcohol on their reservations in an attempt to curb alcohol-related crime and disease within their communities. 

Stereotypes abound when it comes to Native American people and booze, including the false and pernicious notion that they have a lower alcohol tolerance than non-indigenous people or other minority groups. That said, while fewer Native Americans drink alcohol than the US population as a whole, it is the case that alcohol abuse disorder is more common within their communities, a result of a complex matrix of factors including poverty, the impacts of colonisation, historic abuse at the hands of the state, and mental and physical health problems.

The initially negative response to Seven Clans was bound up with all that baggage, says Morgan. 

“Native people have heard [those stereotypes] so much that they think that we can't handle our own alcohol; that we have some kind of gene that does not know how to drink responsibly. People have heard that for so long that some people believe it.”

Since Morgan launched Seven Clans however, back in 2017, “the responses definitely changed”, she’s pleased to report. “It's quietened down a lot, there's no more trying to stop me or silence me.”


Morgan Crisp, 7 Clans and Frog Level Brewing

The role of women in Cherokee’s traditional matrilineal society (a structure that was fundamentally undermined by white colonisers’ imposition of European gender norms) is an important part of the story Morgan wants to tell. Her first beer, 7 Clans Blonde Ale, is inspired by Selu, Cherokee mythology’s First Woman and the goddess of corn. In a nod to the fermented corn drink made by Cherokee women in centuries past, its recipe includes a small amount of corn.

“Women were responsible for all the agriculture in Cherokee society, and women were the first brewers,” she explains. 

7 Clans Blonde Ale was created partly with the casino market in mind, designed as a sort of “crossover” between craft beer and the mainstream, lighter styles preferred by casino-goers. It sounds like a shrewd move – the Harrah’s casino on Cherokee tribal land welcomed four million visitors in 2019 – but it didn’t go exactly to plan in sales terms. 

“We realised that the casinos were not our best place to sell craft beer, because people want liquor, not beer,” Morgan recalls with a rueful smile. 

She switched her focus, ultimately taking over another micro-brewery and tap room, Frog Level Brewing Company, and running Seven Clans alongside that existing offer. One day, Morgan would like to open a dedicated Seven Clans tap room on Cherokee land, a place she can serve traditional foods, display Native artworks and host a community gathering space. With alcohol licensing legislation needing to be changed to enable it to happen – and such changes only possible at five-yearly referendums – she’s unlikely to realise this dream any time soon, however. 

In the meantime Morgan is delighted with how things are going at Frog Level. “I get to enjoy watching people drink my beer,” she says with a grin. 

At the point at which Morgan is able to press go on those plans, there is somewhere she can turn to for advice. Matt Deer, Fred Leblanc, and Drew Stevens, founders of Microbrasserie Kahnawake Brewing Company, the first Native-owned microbrewery on a First Nation's territory in Canada, found themselves with plenty of hoops to jump through too. 


Kahnawake team

“There were no permits, laws, nor regulations for beer brewing, so the owners had to work closely with the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and the Alcoholic Beverages Control Board to have the regulations created before they could start brewing a drop of beer. It was a year-and-a-half process,” explains Drew. “Without the support and buy-in of the community and its officials, Kahnawake Brewing Company would not exist today.”

Cognisant of the difficult relationship many people in their community have had with alcohol, Drew and his co-founders take seriously their role in encouraging responsible drinking. They send all their staff on a ‘responsible service course’ and enjoy the challenge of providing satisfying non-alcoholic options, including their own alcohol-free beer, a range of ciders, and virgin cocktails. 

“We strongly believe that it is our responsibility to ensure that no one leaves our doors completely trashed,” says Drew. 

Respecting the cycle

While Jacob, Morgan and the Kahnawake boys flag up their heritage clearly through their branding, Sarabeth Holden, co-founder of Red Tape Brewery in Toronto, which opened in December 2020, takes a different approach. You can find references to her Inuit upbringing on the brewery’s website, but you have to be really looking for them. 

“I wanted us to be known for really great beer,” she explains. “The fact that we’re indigenous is also awesome but I didn’t want people to be like, ‘I’m going to buy their beer just because they’re indigenous’.” 

That’s not to say that Sarabeth’s heritage isn’t integral to what she does. The brewery’s beers boast unusual ingredients such as coffee from Kaapittiaq, a social enterprise in Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost province, where Sarabeth spent part of her upbringing; and dwarf fireweed, a fragrant flower that Inuit use to make tea and eat raw in salads.


Sean and Sarabeth, Red Tape Brewing

Inuit philosophy is another influence. “There's that understanding that our world exists in cycles. You need to respect everything on this Earth because you're part of that,” she says. 

“Whenever we have challenges, that's just part of life. Opening up a brewery is really challenging. It's actually the hardest thing I've ever done. It’s just understanding that you’re going to have frustrating moments. And that's okay, and you need to work through them and just come back and realise that you're part of this Earth and you're part of the cycle of everything that's going on.”

Looking forward

Another brewer channelling his culture through his work is Dr Clinton Schultz, co-founder of Sobah, Australia's first non-alcoholic craft beer company. Clinton, who is of Gamilaroi heritage, started the brewery after becoming dissatisfied with the alcohol-free beers offered by mainstream brands. At first the beer was just a hobby for Clinton – he sold it on draft from the food truck he ran on days away from his career as a psychologist specialising in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander worker wellbeing. 

As demand grew, Clinton and his wife, Lozen McDiarmid-Schultz, decided to make a go of it with the brewery, raising enough cash through crowdfunding to get their beer into cans. Three and a bit years later and the couple are hoping to start construction soon on a “cultural wellbeing and tourist destination” with Sobah’s brewing facility at its heart. Located on Queensland’s Gold Coast, it will include a native foods café, workspaces, a boutique for Aboriginal arts, crafts and food products, and cultural healing spaces. 

“It'll all act as a training and employment space for people who struggle to get opportunities in mainstream society,” says Clinton, eager to start work but nervous of getting too excited until the paperwork is all signed. 

“Non-alcoholic beer is something that we produce to give us the avenues to do the work we want to do in this cultural and traditional healing space.” 


Lozen and Clinton, Sobah Brewing

Sobah is also an opportunity to change the narrative about indigenous people, a subject about which Clinton feels particularly strongly. “We are made out to be perpetrators, to be violent, to be alcoholics, no-gooders. There is no positive media coverage of us as First Nations people, so I can't blame people for holding the understandings that they have.” 

Proud of his heritage, Clinton stresses the environmental and social benefits of Aboriginal society: 

“The more that we can start turning back to First Nations’ knowledges, both here in Australia, but also overseas, the better it'll be for all of us living on this big ball moving forward.”

Before that can happen, however, there needs to be some “truth telling” about the damage suffered by Aboriginal peoples at the hands of white colonisers. Clinton hopes his work will kick off some of those conversations and is optimistic about what the future holds. 

“The generation below mine is far more open to what we have to offer than my generation and above. It'll be a great world for my kids.”

It’s still early days for these breweries, and being a pioneer in a new space isn’t always easy. “We're all trying to figure our own way out how to do things,” says Morgan of Seven Clans. 

Lucky for us that they are – the more diverse voices joining the world of craft beer, the richer – and more delicious – it’ll be for everyone.

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