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Brewery controversy prompts tribe to examine naming rules

Collette Coggins, co-owner of 7 Clans Brewing, defends her business before the Tribal Council. Cherokee Council House image Collette Coggins, co-owner of 7 Clans Brewing, defends her business before the Tribal Council. Cherokee Council House image

After a contentious three-hour back-and-forth that followed an already full day at the Cherokee Council House, the Cherokee Tribal Council voted unanimously April 5 to start work on legislation regulating how culturally important words and names can be used for business purposes. 

Prolonged uproar over names at a new brewery owned by a pair of enrolled members — the company is called 7 Clans Brewing, and its debut beer was the MotherTown Blonde Ale — prompted tribal members Jatanna Feather and Leah Wolfe to start a petition asking that the names be changed, also submitting a resolution to Tribal Council seeking for the tribe to “disassociate all business with the 7 Clans brewery brand and product that uses the Cherokee culture, heritage, history and names, as it is not honorable for our ancestors who are buried at Kituwah and those who have suffered or lost their lives at the hands of alcohol abuse.”

“My intent for submitting this resolution and creating this petition to change the name is to address the outcry from people regarding the use of sacred names and culturally relevant images by the 7 Clans Brewing Company,” Feather told Tribal Council. “When this company announced their company name and product names, I felt the need to address the issue.”

Since launching the petition a month ago, she’s gathered 653 signatures, Feather told Council.

“It (alcohol) has caused much trauma to who our ancestors were,” Wolfe added. “They were the first people to feel the full impact of what was thrust upon them. I think it’s very dishonorable for something like this to be pushed on our people, knowing where it’s started from.”

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Jatanna Feather, a tribal member who spearheaded a petition opposed to the brewery’s naming choices, addresses Tribal Council. Cherokee Council House image

Anti-alcohol sentiment is strong in Cherokee, for reasons both religious and cultural. In traditional practice, abstinence from alcohol for days both preceding and following a ceremony was required to participate — it was a frowned-upon substance. With European contact, the consequences of imbibing intensified. Europeans enlisted liquor to get the Cherokee people to sign their land away, a problem that became so severe that in 1830 then-Chief Yonaguska asked the Cherokee people to sign a pledge to “abandon the use of spirituous liquors.” 

For those opposed to 7 Clans’ branding, the idea of tying a controversial substance like alcohol to culturally important symbols such as Mothertown and the seven clans is quite offensive. Mothertown, or Kituwah, is known as the birthplace of the Cherokee people and considered to be a sacred site; the seven clans denote the way that Cherokee people defined their lineage and their place in society, going back centuries and even millennia.


Response from 7 Clans

Collette Coggins, co-owner of 7 Clans, doesn’t see it that way. She and her business partner Morgan Crisp have said that they view brewing as their craft, and that tying their Cherokee heritage into that craft was meant only to honor their heritage, not to degrade it. The idea that all alcohol is evil and that native people must abstain from it is outdated and limiting, Coggins said. 

“There’s beer drinkers all over this room right here, and I’d like to think that not everybody who drinks that beer is an alcoholic,” Coggins told those gathered in council, adding, “This is 2018. We’re not 100 years ago, we’re not 200 years ago. Just because we’re Native American people, we shouldn’t try to suppress ourselves.”

She was outspoken, too, about 7 Clans’ status as a private business and its ability to market its products as it sees fit. The brewery does not currently operate on the Qualla Boundary, contracting with BearWaters Brewing in Canton to make its recipes. 

“This is an independent business. It’s not owned by the tribe. It’s not an entity of the tribe,” she said. “I’m an enrolled member, and I can do any business that is legal by the law, and operate it by the law, that I choose to do … This is a private business. It’s not open for discussion.”

The only tribal permit 7 Clans has is a distributor’s license that allows it to sell to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino — the same license held by companies ranging from Budweiser to Nantahala Brewing. Coggins pointed out that, financially speaking, preventing 7 Clans from selling at the casino would only hurt the tribe, which receives 30 percent of the profit from alcohol sales, she said. 

“So we don’t want our enrolled members to be distributors?” she said. “We’re not allowed to make money off it? We’re not allowed to have free enterprise here? And the tribe’s making money with zero investment and zero risk.”


Councilmembers react 

While councilmembers teetered on the question of what they could legally do about the names, several felt they weren’t appropriate. 

“When I first saw that in the name of that, I was shocked, honestly,” Councilmember Perry Shell, of Big Cove, said of the MotherTown beer. 

Cherokee people have become too assimilated to the mainstream culture, he said. It’s important that they protect what’s sacred so they can make it in the future. 

“It may be legal, but it’s not right,” he said. 

Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown, pointed out that the term “7 Clans” belongs not only to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians but also the Cherokee Nation and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma. Shouldn’t the brewery have gotten an opinion from the other two tribes, she asked? 

“Unless there’s a trademark or copyright, from a legal perspective, no they did not have to get permission,” responded Attorney General Mike McConnell. “There might be some good social graces, politeness, to say, ‘I’m thinking of doing this,’ but at the end of the day those tribes don’t have a lock on those words.”

Other councilmembers questioned whether there was any problem at all with the 7 Clans name. Following uproar over the MotherTown beer, the brewery agreed to stop making it, leaving just the 7 Clans name to wrangle with. 

“Probably 90 percent of the people that were mad wanted to get rid of the MotherTown name, which she (Crisp) did,” said Owle. “But 7 Clans, I even told Jatanna (Feather), to me it wasn’t offensive. To her it was.”

However, said Owle, legally, “We can’t make her change the name.”

“There’s already so many businesses named 7 Clans and nobody’s had a problem with it,” agreed Councilmember Albert Rose, of Birdtown. “Smoking kills more people every year than murder, aids, suicide, car crashes and alcohol. There’s a brand of cigarettes out there called Cherokee. Cherokee cigarettes. Are we just singling people out here?”


Input from community members

Plenty of audience members disagreed with that point of view, maintaining that — while a simple Google search will indeed turn up many businesses using the name 7 Clans — it’s inappropriate to tie that name to an alcohol-related business.

Russell Townsend of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office was one of those audience members, taking the floor to speak on behalf of the elders advisory board, whose members held the unanimous opinion that using the names 7 Clans and MotherTown to market beer was inappropriate. 

When he spoke for himself, Townsend held to the same opinion. Calling himself “not much of a guy to complain about names” — “I have a Southeastern Oklahoma Savages hat. I think it’s hilarious,” he said — he said that when Michell Hicks was principal chief, he directed Townsend to look for any historical instance in which the Cherokee people considered alcohol to be beneficial for any reason. He couldn’t find anything, Townsend said. 

“Now you can look at me and tell that I’ve had a beer or two in my life, but I think for the reasons that our ancestors were against alcohol it is the right way to think,” he said. “I’m sorry that I’m not that good, but I should live my life without alcohol, if I want to be serious. That is the way a Cherokee person needs to live.”

While doing away with the MotherTown beer was a good move, Townsend continued, the name 7 Clans should also go by the wayside. The clan system is an integral part of Cherokee history and identity, he said, and it shouldn’t be wrapped up with alcohol marketing. 

“It’s the most important thing. It holds our society together,” he said. “When we lived in autonomous towns, the clan system gave us strength and unity. It’s holy.”

“You know what’s right and wrong,” added tribal member Elvia Walkingstick. “You don’t have to have it written down to know and understand what’s right.”

Tribal member Peggy Hill agreed, saying that the seven clans are sacred and that precedent shows that Tribal Council can compel a business to change its name if it wants to. 

“When it comes to putting it on a product that we have historically said we don’t want to associate with, that becomes also just a slap in the face,” she said. “Our ancestors have always, always said no. And yes, times are changing. But do we hold true to what our values are as Cherokees, or are we going to be using our assimilated values?”

Other members of the tribe took Coggins’ side. Mollie Grant, of Painttown, pointed out that although the brewery uses the name 7 Clans, its logo doesn’t include the masks associated with the clans. She said Coggins is “easy to talk to” and encouraged people to “try talking to her before attacking her.”

“I think if that (the masks) was on the products, then yes I would be offended because I would feel like yes, she is promoting her product with part of our culture, but it doesn’t feel like that,” said Grant. 

“I’ve been friends with Collette (Coggins) my whole life, and she’s a good person. She didn’t do this to hurt nobody,” added Savannah Wilnoty, of Painttown. “You guys (Council) have sat here and let this woman be bullied. That’s not fair.”

The comments went back and forth, often growing heated, and often personal, sometimes featuring remarks about how much Cherokee blood various people in the argument carried in their veins. 


Crafting a policy

Tribal Council had to come to some kind of resolution before closing the discussion, and eventually Saunooke told Feather that it didn’t look like her resolution, if passed, would generate the desired effect. While the beer is sold at tribally owned Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, Tribal Council does not have authority to make decisions about which beers are on tap and who gets a distribution permit. 

Council voted to strike the original wording asking it to “dissociate all business” with 7 Clans and replace it with language directing the attorney general’s office to “draft an ordinance that would regulate the use of cultural or traditional business names that appear derogatory in nature.” The resolution would require McConnell to deliver a resolution for consideration within four months. 

Michael Gross, attorney for the Tribal ABC Commission — through which 7 Clans has a permit to sell its beer to the casino — warned Tribal Council that any attempt to force Coggins to change her business’ name could end poorly. 

“The question you’re asking yourself right now is, ‘Are we crossing a line on legality in trying to tell somebody they can’t have a name that’s already been approved by the state, the Internal Revenue Code, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, taxes and ABC permit?’” he said. 

Coggins herself hinted that legal action could ensue should the tribe try to take away the 7 Clans name.

“When you go and you impede on a privately owned business, then there’s consequences that come with those things,” she said. “All I’m saying is do what you feel you have to do, and I’ll do what I feel I have to do.”

Tribal Council eventually voted unanimously to pass the resolution asking for regulatory legislation, but it’s unclear what effect, if any, that vote will have on 7 Clans. The resolution did not include any direction as to what, specifically, the drafted legislation should say, and it will take up to four months for the initial draft to make it into Tribal Council. After that, it will likely have to work its way through multiple council meetings and work sessions before anything is passed. 

In addition, Principal Chief Richard Sneed has 30 days to veto the resolution directing McConnell to draft legislation. Sneed has not stated his intention either way, but he has spoken in support of the business’ right to call itself anything it wants to. However, Council can override vetoes by a two-thirds majority, and with a unanimous vote in favor of the resolution several members would have to change their minds for a veto to prevail.



MotherTown ale discontinued

Following public outcry over the name for its inaugural beer, the MotherTown Blonde Ale, 7 Clans Brewery has announced that it won’t make any more of the beer once the first run sells out. 

When the brewery announced the name for its first beer, many in the community were unhappy with the branding connection between alcohol and Mothertown, a site near Bryson City that’s considered to be the birthplace of the Cherokee people and a sacred site for traditional practice. While most took to Facebook or signed a petition to express their outrage, a few met with 7 Clans co-owners Collette Coggins and Morgan Crisp to discuss the issue.

“I said we will voluntarily finish out this run, and we will not have another MotherTown Blonde Ale,” Coggins said during a discussion on the issue in Tribal Council April 5.

They’re currently on the final flat of the MotherTown beer, Coggins said later in the meeting. 7 Clans is releasing a second beer, the less-controversially named Hop Rooted IPA.

While the name 7 Clans has also met criticism, Coggins told Council that she would not consider renaming the business and is in the process of trademarking the business name and logo.

“I feel like we did the other (MotherTown), and we’re way too far into it,” Coggins said in response to questioning from Councilmember Tommye Saunooke, of Painttown. “No ma’am, I’m sorry.”

The brewery does not yet have a physical location and is instead contracting with BearWaters Brewing in Canton to make its recipes. The business will build its own production facility at some point down the road in a location yet to be determined.

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