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What Is a Thanksgiving Drink, Anyway?

A conversation between Chockie Tom, Roxanne Tiburolobo and Charlotte Big Canoe, three Indigenous industry leaders reconsidering what holiday drinking ought to look like.

If you abide by the popular mythology taught in school, the first Thanksgiving—when pilgrims and Native Americans shared an autumn feast in 1621—could be seen as the birth of American hospitality. But it doesn’t take much research to uncover the bloody origins of the holiday, or to learn that in many Indigenous circles it’s often commemorated as a day of mourning. Yet each November, publications, brands and even bars push Thanksgiving-centric programming, ostensibly to honor Native American heritage, but with very little input from Indigenous communities.

This approach tends to reduce Indigenous people to background players in their own story and entraps us in the past tense, as if we exist only in government building murals breaking bread with early colonists. Even as the drinks industry has witnessed a movement to diversify and create opportunities for LGBTQ2S and BIPOC communities, Indigenous professionals are still left fighting for a seat at the table, an ironic twist of fate when you consider on whose land the table sits.

Even so, this last year has been monumental for our community and Indigenous visibility, despite our small numbers in the industry: Tales of the Cocktail held its first Indigenous-led panel; Tara Gomez, a Chumash winemaker, was recognized as VinePair’s winemaker of the year; and Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. has utilized America’s only indigenous hop as part of their Food Sovereignty program.

With as much misinformation as good intentions, considering how to center November around Indigenous heritage within the hospitality industry is a work in progress. As we start the dialogue on what comes next, there are many perspectives to consider; in the United States alone, there are over 574 recognized nations. To offer a starting point, I sat down with Roxanne Tiburolobo, an award-winning brewer and distiller of Chiricahua Apache Nde and Rarámuri descent currently residing on occupied Chocuyen land, and Charlotte Big Canoe, a board member at The Full Plate and First Nations Advocate of Anishinaabe descent, from the Chippewa of the Georgina Island First Nation.

Chockie Tom: My name is Chockie Tom. I am Pomo and Paiute. My pronouns are she/her/comrade and I’m from Los Angeles, currently in London by way of New York, and I’m an Indigenous visibility advocate within the drinks industry. I do a lot of consulting about brand empowerment and how to move away from culturally appropriative behaviors. And I’m the co-founder of Doom Tiki, an Indigenous- and BIPOC-led pop-up that combines heavy metal, decolonization and immersive cocktail experiences with fundraising for different communities that are dealing with the aftereffects of colonization.

Charlotte Big Canoe: My name is Charlotte Big Canoe; my pronouns are she/her/they. I currently work as an Indigenous advisor and community outreach specialist for the University of Toronto. And I’m also the partner and membership director for The Full Plate, a hospitality-focused nonprofit that provides barrier-free access to services for hospitality workers. I also do a lot of advocacy for Indigenous representation in our food and beverage systems, mostly focusing on wine as that’s where most of my expertise lies.

Roxanne Fernandez Tiburolobo: My name is Roxanne Fernandez Tiburolobo. I am Chiricahua Apache Nde as well as Rarámuri. I currently work as a distiller for Sonoma Distilling Company in Rohnert Park, California. I have spent the past eight years in the craft beer and spirits production industry and I predominantly make whiskey these days. I also try to advocate for greater inclusion in production spaces for BIPOC individuals, particularly greater Indigenous visibility and inclusion within the industry. My pronouns are he/they.

CT: As somebody that’s Indigenous within this industry, the most exposure we get is either through problematic tropes, like using tribes or spirit animal for marketing, or as being portrayed as bit players in our own history. One of our goals is to change that narrative. We want to make November less about maintaining this narrative and more about Indigenous contributions, visibility and to get the same type of media and opportunities that other groups have for their different months.

[Let’s start with] naming your cocktails after things that you don’t have the right to name them after. There was a beer in the U.K., of all places, named after the Ghost Dance, which is from my people (it ended up actually with Custer dying, so that was kind of cool) but it’s something very special and something very sacred. … Not everything is yours to name; you can’t name your cocktail Medicine Woman.

RFT: Beer, craft beer in particular, feels very open to taking names; there’s a Craft Brewers Powwow in South Africa every year. It’s literally called that. People don’t understand that these things have meaning, or are ceremony, and are important to us. We’ve discussed that certain breweries have felt that it was OK to use the Zia Pueblo symbol because they associate it with New Mexico, but not with the people. We’ve had other incidences with certain brands that use names of tribes for their entire brand. There is a spirits brand that uses one of the names of one of my people as the name for their brand of alcohol, and that’s incredibly disrespectful, with no permission [and] with a very stereotypical representation of a native person on it. It doesn’t even resemble my people at all, so far as regalia and dress is concerned. 

If you’re like ‘hey I want to change the narrative of Thanksgiving with what I’m doing with my cocktails,’ do the research of the people that actually live on the land that you’re on. Don’t just go with these broad ideas that you have from the Thanksgiving myth of what native food is and what native traditions are like. Talk to the people that live in that area and get some ideas of what their food ways are and what herbs they use that you could use in a respectful way. 

I’d love to get away from people still being surprised that an Indigenous person works in spirits and wine.

People are rediscovering, at least on the production side, all these sorts of indigenous ingredients. I’ve seen some stuff recently where Jimmy Red corn is becoming a big thing and there’s this narrative that these white dudes brought it back from the brink of extinction and I’m like… There were Indigenous seed keepers who were keeping that corn alive. They’ve kept it alive since that corn began existing; they probably bred it.

Three Indigenous-Made Spirits to Try

Sonoma Distilling Company Cherrywood Rye Whiskey
Located on the traditional homelands of the Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo, Sonoma Distilling Company’s Cherrywood Rye is made entirely from California grain. It has notes of baking spices, stewed fruit and a hint of smoke.

Copper Crow Whey Vodka
From the first Native-owned distillery in the United States, Copper Crow’s whey vodka is a creamy, sophisticated bottling made from byproducts of the cheese-making process.

Heritage Distilling at Talking Cedar
The Chehalis Indian tribe joined forces with Heritage Distilling Co. to create the first tribal-owned distillery in the U.S., which now makes a variety of spirits, many of which are available in sample size in their 2021 advent calendar.

The Neomexicanus hop—an indigenous North American hop varietal—has made a comeback. And our friends at Bow & Arrow have been working on bringing that to the forefront. But now that people are aware of it, we have hop companies that are working on breeding it commercially and other breweries that are excited to use it; I fear that as that goes on, we get left out of our own food sovereignty narratives as far as where this food comes from and who’s been tending to it and who’s been keeping it alive on their land.

I’m excited for the interest in these native plants and utilizing them more, but I always worry about losing the narrative of where these things come from and their importance to the people that they originate from.

CBC: In Canada, we have a lot of Northern berries that are starting to become more popular and starting to make their way into food systems that have sustained a lot of Northern communities for a long time. It’s always exciting to see those things start to have greater representation, but when we have these stories of ingredients very recently discovered from the brink of extinction, there are so many people who are involved in that [rediscovery] that get left out. It’s not necessarily just somebody stumbling upon it, it’s care for this food that really gets lost in those stories.

CT: I believe the most appropriate term for that is “Columbusing”: where you discover something that’s been there all along and you act like it’s this new, exciting thing.

With all of these false narratives, it really pigeonholes us as past tense or living relics from the past, and that’s dehumanizing and othering. And that devalues who we are as people. All of us are very modern and not everything we do is spiritual or mystical—sometimes just being Indigenous and simply getting up and going to work, distilling some great whiskey or putting together a good cocktail program… It’s indigenous because we’re doing it.

RFT: ​​It’s like there’s an air of mysticism that magically gets thrown on anything you do—it’s weird. When I’m mashing whiskey, I’m not praying over it. I do think about where my grains come from and I taste through everything and I have a context of the land because that’s just how I was taught to engage with food products—whiskey is a food product—but there’s nothing spiritual about it.

Most of the people growing up in our education systems only hear these false narratives. And so their contexts of us are always in this very past-tense version and are very romanticized without recognizing how we exist in the modern world. I’d like to see the acknowledgements of our current contributions. It doesn’t have to just be about these ancient foodways and all these things, but what are the cool things that Native people and Indigenous people are doing right now in the drinks industry? That’s what I’d like to see more.

CBC: I’d love to get away from people still being surprised that an Indigenous person works in spirits and wine. If there’s one thing to just move away from, really, it is that, because it’s holding people back and it’s such a bizarre racial stereotype to have in a job.

RFT: I’ve had people that I brewed with be like, “Oh, you’re native? I didn’t know you people could have alcohol.”

CBC: It becomes a real problem for people who work in this industry because you get really held back by those stereotypes.

CT: What are some of the ways forward that you guys see?

RFT: I’d love to see more opportunities. Particularly from the production side of things—internships and scholarships, and just the awareness that you can do this, because we don’t have the same support, we don’t have the same structure and history in our communities of doing these jobs. We get backlash both from within and without regarding entering this industry. And if that’s something that somebody wants to do, there’s not a lot of guidance and there’s not a lot of help—it’s a very lonely thing starting out. You have to jump through so many more hoops to really get your foot in the door because you just don’t have those connections. So making that pipeline easier, I’d like to see a lot more of that.

CT: There’s something I was going to add, too: Include more Indigenous products in what you’re doing as part of the norm, instead of making it a weird, othering thing. If you want to do a cocktail that’s inspired by us, collaborate with us instead. If you want to do something with beer, reach out to an Indigenous brewer. Make the conversation different by making it inclusive.

CBC: I really don’t want to have generations after me having these conversations. The more we can learn about Indigenous people and other Indigenous communities makes it that much easier to bring your whole self to this industry. To be able to bring your whole self means more education for all. We’re working so hard to correct the stories that have been told of the past that we’re not able to really experience joy and daydreaming of the future. I want to be able to have that space because resilience is exhausting, and to just be able to enjoy time is something I really want for future generations.

CT: Another huge thing. Stop using sexy Indian maidens on your Thanksgiving menus at your bars. That is not cool. It’s part of why we have an issue with missing and murdered Indigenous people. It’s why our women are treated terribly and disappear and don’t get any media attention. I’m so sick of coming across that.

I think that one of the most important things too is that we’ve now provided a lot of information for people to work on and work from. You don’t have to ask one of us to do the labor for you anymore—it’s out there and it’s accessible. So we can guide you that much more, not as your spirit guide, but as your don’t-be-a-terrible-person guide.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Chockie Tom is an Indigenous, award-winning bartender-turned-writer who focuses her work on advocacy and cultural empowerment in the bar industry. You can follow her work on Instagram at @chocktails.