These days, you’ll see them sprinkled across Oracle Park, the stadium of the San Francisco Giants: bright blue cans with images of a steelhead fish flapping above a waterway, a deer with its head to the ground or a dam in the Klamath River.
The cans are produced by the Mad River Brewing Company, owned by the largest federally recognized Indigenous nation in California, the Yurok Tribe. And in April, they became the first tribally owned craft beer sold in a major league sports stadium.
Under the unflinching lights of the ballfield, the brewery’s drinks amplify some of the Yuroks’ most pressing causes: there’s Undammed: Demand Release, a hard seltzer named to bring awareness to the fight to save salmon threatened by dams on the Klamath River, and the Historic State Park IPA, designed to showcase the Yurok Tribe’s work telling the accurate history of their ancestral land now designated as a state park.
Their presence in and out of the stands has helped combat damaging stereotypes of Indigenous people, alcoholism and the tokenism too often seen in the sports industry, while creating a support system for the nation’s struggling economy.
“There’s a lot of money made off of false narratives of us,” said Linda Cooley, CEO of Mad River Brewing. “Instead of using us as an image or a token, why not just let us tell our own story, and show you that we can bring business?”
‘Telling our own story’
The Yurok Tribe has about 6,700 members, its reservation nestled on the north-west tip of California.
The Tribe purchased the brewery in October 2019, in an effort to grow business with casinos in California and bolster endeavors on the reservation, where they manage and operate a hotel and a campground.
Expanding economic ventures off reservation has been a priority for the community in recent years, said Toby Vanlandingham, the Yurok agricultural corporation president and a Yurok tribal councilmember.
The unemployment rate on the reservation is nearly 90%, Vanlandingham said. Many tribal members live below the poverty line, the nation’s vice-chairman, Frankie Myers, said during congressional testimony in 2019.
“The bulk of us have always known that we’re never going to have sustainable economics unless we go off reservation,” Vanlandingham said. “The reservation doesn’t have the economy. And we don’t have the cash to build the type of economy that we would need to sustain some of the programs.”
That’s where the Mad River Brewing came in.
The California company had been around for over 30 years, and in August 2019 its previous owners reached out to Cooley, who has been working in the beer business since she turned 21. Their growth had become stagnant, the owners told Cooley, but they thought the Yurok Tribe might have more luck, especially if they worked with casinos.
Mere months after the tribe took over, the Covid pandemic hit, and the majority of the businesses the brewery planned to work with shuttered.
“We took that time to focus on what can we do in a larger picture … and what message do we want to send?” Cooley recalled.
The company rebranded so its ales and hard seltzers came with important messages, and it added the Yurok Country certification to showcase where the product came from. Then, Cooley, a lifelong baseball fan, started emailing the Giants.
“I told them my idea of really just letting us have our own voice and that being our platform of telling our own story,” she said. “And we ended up signing a contract.”
Spreading the word
Today, Mad River Brewing beers are sold throughout Oracle Park during games, and the brewery has held several popular beer tastings for fans. Cooley was even able to throw the first pitch on the second day of opening weekend.
Jessica Santamaria, vice-president of partnerships and business development for the San Francisco Giants, said the team had made a point of celebrating diversity through such events as Pride and Native American Heritage Night. Joining forces with the Yurok Tribe was more than just celebrating; it was a way to “use our brand as a platform to help”, she said.
Since making the deal with the Giants, the brewery has heard from the ice hockey teams the San Jose Sharks and the San Jose Barracuda. This year, they worked out a deal in which the Yurok Tribe would have its own branded bar inside the Barracuda’s new arena. It features Native designs and the words: “A craft brewery owned by California’s largest tribe.”
The company’s beers can also be found at Costco, Walmart and Safeway. And Cooley said the company was working on several other contracts with sports teams, including another major league team.
The partnerships could be an example for teams across the nation, Cooley said, as franchises re-evaluate their histories. “I’ve read so many comments on articles when other teams are being renamed, and the most common question was people were asking, ‘Well, what should they do?’” said Cooley. “And my answer is this. This is what they should do.”
The tribe has faced challenges beyond Covid, including contending with damaging stereotypes about Indigenous people and alcoholism.
“There’s a lot of suppression and false facts and false narratives and where us ourselves are supposed to think that we have a different reaction to alcohol than any other ethnicity, which is not accurate,” said Cooley.
She recalled one particularly disheartening comment on a local Indigenous article about the brewery that said: “How are we praising a girl that is killing our community?”
Those types of negative comments have begun to subside, Cooley said, adding she has made a point of focusing more on the positive and historical parts of the brewery venture.
“We’re trying to get our message out to the masses and we’re trying to drive economics and a different view,” she said. “And I think the more positive news we have, the more we’ll fight the false narrative.”
A broad impact
About 5% of Mad River’s profits are earmarked for the causes featured on its beer, while, according to Vanlandingham, 20% of its net revenue is sent back to the tribe, whose council distributes it to the services and programs most in need.
Tribal leadership declined to go into specifics about how profitable the brewery has been, but Vanlandingham said the Yurok Agricultural Corporation, which owns the brewery and several other businesses, has sent about $160,000 to the nation so far this year.
The brewery, along with the nation’s lumber mill, have helped fund the Weitchpec Nursery, an on-reservation business reopened in the spring that now has four employees. Mad River has also hired a few tribal members and expects to hire 30 more by next summer, Cooley said. The company typically pays as much as $18 an hour, plus benefits, she added.
But its greatest impact has been the renown the brewery has brought to the Yurok Tribe and Native people in California in general, said Vanlandingham.
“From little Yurok Country up here in northern California making an impact to where 40,000 people are seeing our logo splashed across the screens and seeing ‘Yurok’,” he said. “One of my crowning moments as a tribal leader is the fact that we’ve gone from nobody knows anything about us to now a household name – at least to Giants fans.”
Cooley said she remembered previous encounters with non-Indigenous people where, after they learned she was Native, they told her they didn’t know there were still “Indians”.
“I think the more opportunities we have to educate people that we’re here, we’re active, we’re proud – it opens up their mind,” she said.