D.C. Brewery Faces Criticism Over Navajo Code Talker Beer
A couple of weeks ago, Hellbender Brewing Company released a limited-edition beer called Amplify Black Voices, which was sold to benefit a local mentoring program for low-income students in the Washington D.C. area.
"We chose the name Amplify Black Voices to both magnify and actively listen to the experiences of the Black community," Tim Bryson, who collaborated with Hellbender on the beer, said. "We understand there are systemic inequities, not limited to racism, that inhibit the Black community from excelling and pursuing their evolving goals. We wanted to brew a beer that says 'We hear you' and 'we want to help' as we believe education can help all students identify their passion, inspire shared visions, and walk in their unique purpose."
Although the response to that beer—and to Hellbender's support of Capital Partners for Education —seemed to be unanimously positive, that hasn't been the case for its most recent brew. On National Navajo Code Talkers Day, Hellbender released Code Talkers American Pale Ale, which was created by Hellbender brewer LT Goodluck, in honor of his grandfather John V. Goodluck. The elder Goodluck was a Navajo Code Talker who served with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II. A portrait of the late John V. Goodluck is on every can of the beer, and the label shares the story of these heroic veterans.
"In 1942, the Navajo Code Talkers developed an indecipherable code based on their Native language," the label reads. "The Navajo Code Talkers successfully transmitted tactical information by radio to every major Marine operation in the Pacific theater. At the end of WWII, the Navajo Code remained unbroken."
“I just wanted to make sure that people who may have never heard of the Code Talkers or my grandfather know about the importance of Navajo Code Talkers Day through this brew and a tasteful label," LT Goodluck told Indian Country Today.
But Goodluck's well-meaning effort to remember his grandfather has been met with criticism from some on social media. "With all the alcohol issues in Native American land how on earth is this honoring anyone let alone a code talker," one woman wrote on Hellbender's Facebook page. "Do you understand that alcoholism is rampant among veterans due to PTSD and other trauma due to the wars?"
Another added that "alcohol is a poison among our people and should be avoided at all costs," while others took issue with the fact that other Native nations served as WWII Code Talkers, and that they weren't all Navajo. (And two women were just upset by the thought of someone crushing and trashing that aluminum portrait of John Goodluck.)
Hellbender has not yet directly addressed the controversy, nor have they responded to the suggestions that some of the proceeds of the beer should be donated to the Navajo Code Talkers Association, Navajo COVID relief, or to another organization that supports Native American communities. (Food & Wine has reached out to Hellbender for comment.)
LT Goodluck told Indian Country Today that it was never his intention to upset anyone with the beer, with its name, or by sharing his grandfather's story. "I wanted to have a conversation about Natives in this industry and bring to light there’s not a lot of people of color," LT Goodluck said. "I’m not a rug weaver or do other traditional Navajo crafts. I make recipes, brew beer, and hopefully people who try my craft believe I do it well."