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A beer by any other name: Brewery’s naming choices cause protest in Cherokee

A beer by any other name: Brewery’s naming choices cause protest in Cherokee

Over the past decade or so, the craft beer explosion has ricocheted throughout Western North Carolina, bouncing through the valleys and over the peaks to find its way into even the most remote mountain towns. But one community has remained staunchly absent from the ever-increasing list of towns boasting hometown breweries. 

That could soon change. 

Seven Clans Brewing, a new business launched by a pair of Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians tribal members, has just released its first beer using the brewery equipment at BearWaters Brewing in Canton, with plans to construct a building as the brand is established. The Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission granted the business a malt beverage wholesaler permit following a Feb. 15 vote. 

Seven Clans launched its MotherTown Blonde Ale March 10 during a release party at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino that coincided with a concert by musician Bret Michaels, and it will be on tap there going forward. While Harrah’s has other local breweries represented on its taps, none of them are run by tribal members — Seven Clans is a first in that regard. 

“Our rollout was great. We had a huge outpour for it. No negativity,” said Collette Coggins, the brewery’s vice president and co-owner. “Everything was just — it was really good. The casino got excellent feedback on it. We got excellent feedback on the case, the product. Every bit of it was just a positive step forward.”

Coggins co-owns the business with enrolled member Morgan Crisp, who serves as its president, and Crisp’s husband Travis Crisp, who is the operations manager. 

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“We also have other local brands from Bryson City and several from the Asheville area, so it’s a local product,” said Harrah’s Regional Vice President of Marketing Brian Saunooke. “We’re happy to support and help them.”


‘Beer on a grave’

While the Seven Clans owners are excited to see what the future holds for their burgeoning brewery, there’s a contingent of the Cherokee community that is not so enthusiastic. Anti-alcohol sentiment runs high in Cherokee, but many tribal members are particularly upset about the names that the brewery’s owners have chosen for their business and its debut beer. 

“The words that they’re using are very specific,” said Jatanna Feather, 31, who has been a staunch opponent of the brewery. “And we use these words to describe our way of life, our history, our culture and heritage and their significance and their parallels to how our spirituality works. As natives we’re not taught to misuse those.”

“Seven Clans” refers to the way that Cherokee people trace their genealogies. Cherokee is a matrilineal society, with clanship passed down through the mother’s side. For a Cherokee person, knowing the name of your clan, and the names of your parents’ and grandparents’ clans, is key to understanding who you are and your place in the tribal community. 

“I have four clans. And that is how I identify my mother’s mother, my father’s mother, my mother’s father and my father’s father,” Feather explained. “That is exactly who I am and where I come from.”

Naming the business “Seven Clans,” added Lea Wolfe, another opponent of the brewery, implies the buy-in of the tribe as a whole when that’s not necessarily the case. 

“It’s like saying the whole of Cherokee agrees with you,” she said. “And they didn’t ask my opinion. They didn’t ask how I felt. It’s disrespectful. It dishonors the name of who we are.” 

fr mothertownlogoThe term “Mother Town” — used to name Seven Clans’ debut beer, the MotherTown Blond Ale — is also a meaning-laden word. “Mother Town” refers to Kituwah, the Cherokee civilization’s place of origin, located outside of present-day Bryson City. Archeologists have dated the site’s use back to 10,000 years, according to the tribe’s tourism website. The village center was Kituwah Mound, a 15-to-20-foot-tall mound of earth that was a central point for governmental, spiritual and cultural functions. It was also one of the places of the “eternal flame,” a fire that tribal keepers of medicine would keep burning in the councilhouses placed atop the mounds, symbolizing the Creator’s presence, the site says. 

Today, the mound stands only about 6 feet tall, and there is no village surrounding it. But it still occupies an honored place in the minds of the Cherokee, who will sometimes go there to worship and pray. 

Seeing this place become the brand name for an alcoholic beverage — even one created and distributed by a fellow tribal member — is intolerable to Feather. 

“That is a healing place. That’s where people go to pray. They go there to speak to our ancestors, and we protect that,” said Feather. “As far as what she (Coggins) is doing, this corporation is throwing beer on top of that, and that’s not something you would do. You wouldn’t throw beer on a grave, so to speak.”

Wolfe agrees. Whether or not someone practices traditional spirituality or what that person thinks about alcohol is immaterial, she said. 

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“People say, ‘That ain’t my culture,’ or ‘That’s not how I live and that’s not what I practice,’ but you know what? If I go to anybody’s church, I’m going to go with the utmost respect because that’s your religion,” she said. “That’s your way of praying, and how they or I or anybody can come upon where you pray and disrespect it — how dare anybody do that.”

Feather feels so strongly on this point that she decided to start a petition, asking that the names be changed to something that doesn’t draw Cherokee words and symbolism into the sale of alcohol. Launched two weeks ago, the online petition had 357 signatures as of press time Tuesday, with six or seven paper petitions circulating in the community as well. 

In addition to asking that Seven Clans and the MotherTown blonde be rechristened, the petition also names Bryson City-based Nantahala Brewing Company and its Spearfinger black IPA. The word “Nantahala” is a place name that comes from Cherokee, and “Spearfinger” is a figure in Cherokee lore. 

“This petition will ask the EBCI council to take immediate action toward the ‘7 Clans Brewery,’ ‘Nantahala Brewing Company,’ and any other establishment that uses culturally offensive Native American products,” the petition reads. “In keeping with being culturally sensitive, we respectfully ask that Giduwa (Cherokee) historical sites, names, language and people will remain protected under any future provisions.” 

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to have all (the signatures) we need,” said Wolfe, who has been working with Feather on the petition effort. 

The goal is to use those signatures as a springboard to have Tribal Council consider legislation establishing guidelines for how and when and by whom Cherokee cultural terms can be used in business activities. Wolfe said she hopes to introduce the resolution as early as the April Tribal Council session. 


An expression of culture

The folks at Seven Clans see the issue differently. Brewing is their craft, Crisp said, and the names seek only to honor Cherokee culture through the lens of that craft. 

“We are Cherokee, so it’s natural that our artwork and branding reflect a love for our culture and engage our customer with a type of storytelling,” Crisp said in a press release. “While this is a contemporary approach to sharing culture, we endeavor to respectfully and authentically pique the curiosity of our consumers so that they will ultimately seek out their own personal experience with our vibrant Cherokee people and culture.”

When asked about the other perspective, the one that Feather and Wolfe hold, Coggins said that she doesn’t really see any validity there. 

“I talked to community members. They know what our plan is, the Chief (Richard Sneed) knows what our plan is, and we are just moving forward,” she said. “I’m not really focusing on anything negative, and the haters group I don’t really give any validity to. I don’t really give any comment to what that part of the community has to say.”

“I’ve spoken with the chief and I’ve spoken with a couple other community members about the name and we’re dealing with it appropriately,” she added. 

Seven Clans declined an opportunity for a full interview about the brewery, the beer and the vision for the business going forward — as well as their alternative perspective on the appropriateness of the names — but referred The Smoky Mountain News to previous press releases, Facebook posts and a recent article The Cherokee One Feather published after Seven Clans’ owners interviewed with that publication.

In The One Feather article, the owners said that they’d been working on the brewery idea for about four years. They chose to start by contract brewing with BearWaters rather than building their own facility right out the gate in order to get their product to market quicker and reduce upfront costs. Coggins told The One Feather that Seven Clans will build a production facility down the road as profits from beer sales build and laws become more favorable. 

Possible locations for the production facility include Cherokee, surrounding counties and even Tennessee. A possible location for a distribution warehouse is the old Cherokee Fun Park, which Coggins, who also owns the Cherokee Bear Zoo — that establishment is currently the subject of a federal lawsuit dealing with alleged mistreatment of endangered grizzly bears — had secured to build a new, more humane bear sanctuary for animals at the bear zoo. Coggins told The One Feather that the 25-acre property is plenty large to hold both a bear sanctuary and a distribution warehouse for Seven Clans. 

In the One Feather interview, Coggins and Crisp both insisted that the names chosen weren’t meant to be disrespectful at all — in fact, the intention was the other way around. The words “Mother Town” and “Seven Clans” are meant to display Coggins’ and Crisp’s pride in their culture and in their craft, but to simultaneously avoid commercial use of any Cherokee language words. 

“I was just trying to pinpoint where are we from, where did we start, what was our first town,” Crisp told The One Feather. “I didn’t want to use our Cherokee word for that because I knew that it would be controversial and I didn’t want to share that word with everybody, so I used ‘Mother Town.’”

In reply to critical comments posted to Seven Clans’ Facebook page, Crisp further clarified her position, saying that while legislation seeking to protect Cherokee people from seeing their culture monetized by outsiders could be “helpful,” any such legislation should also respect the rights of individuals to express themselves. 

“As Cherokee women and mothers, we cannot deny this inspiration,” she said, referring to Mother Town and Selu, the first Cherokee woman. “We value our right as individuals to freely express ourselves as we allow others to express theirs. Beer is our craft. It is a handcrafted quality product made by Cherokee Women. Because it is alcohol and people have their own opinions about that, are we suddenly not able to be and express who we innately are?”


Community reaction 

Comments included on the petition represent only the point of view of those who believe that the names are inappropriate — there is no opposing petition rallying those who support the brewery. That means that reading through comments on the petition gives a one-sided view of the issue. However, a recent question posted on The Cherokee One Feather Facebook page drew comments from both sides, and if the distribution of perspectives listed there is any indication, those who believe the names should be changed are in the majority. 

The question was “What do you think about the use of Cherokee cultural names and references on products like beer and wine?” Of 50 comments posted as of Monday afternoon — this analysis does not include replies to comments or subsequent posts from people who commented more than once — eight people said they thought such use was appropriate, while five commenters didn’t explicitly state which side they took. The remainder — 37 commenters — said they did not agree with these names being used to sell beer and wine. 

“To allow your culture, religion and language to be used in any such manner is disrespectful and is a prostitution of your heritage and legacy,” wrote Wilson Johnson. “Please do not allow anyone to disgrace or make fools of who you are.”

“It feels like exploiting culture for a buck and shows a lack of true awareness,” agreed Billie Jo Rich. “Especially when the people have voted against alcohol so many times. It’s adding insult to injury.”

However, not everybody felt that way. 

“It’s OK to sell artwork, crafts, stories, pottery, music, dance, etc., using Cherokee culture to profit from them,” wrote Taylor Parks. “Somehow it’s not OK for these two Cherokee women to do the same with their craft? No one has told any artist that their contemporary Cherokee art can’t be sold because, well, it’s contemporary or that they can’t dance because it’s not traditional. Let’s move past this crazy delusion and hypocrisy.”

Others were more even-keeled in their comments. 

“I think it is disrespectful and careless. Cultural appropriation is a real problem and there have been actions made trying to stop this when used by outsiders, but I think because these are enrolled members they are within their legal rights to do so,” wrote Tamara Thompson. “I don’t support their choice of names personally and I would respectfully ask that those who did this would reconsider their choices. I think they are doing great to explore new areas of enterprise and I would be happy to see their success. However, they could be more considerate of the types of products that are inappropriate to tie our culture to.”

While it’s the brewery that’s brought that issue to a head, both Feather and Wolfe say that the commercial use of Cherokee culture is an issue that’s long needed addressing. From the costumed “chiefs” in bright-colored headdresses and garb of a sort never worn by any historical Cherokee person to the popular Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV, Native American culture has long been used and misused in a spectrum of marketing schemes as wide as the United States itself. 

“It’s going to be a long way to fix that, but I don’t have much to do in kidney failure, so I’m willing to tell that story (of Cherokee culture) as well and help along that story,” said Feather. “I’m sure there are plenty of others that are willing to help tell that story as well.”

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