Anishinaabe artist defends her work on beer can label design amid online criticism

Anishinaabe artist Chief Lady Bird stands by the work she donated to an Ontario brewery that will benefit a local women's shelter, though online criticism has raised questions about if Indigenous art belongs on alcohol packaging.

Online criticism has sparked conversations on alcohol use in Indigenous communities

Chief Lady Bird designed and donated a piece of her art work for an initiative that will donate beer sales to Indigenous women's organizations. (Chief Lady Bird)

Anishinaabe artist Chief Lady Bird stands by the work she donated to an Ontario brewery that will benefit a local women's shelter, though online criticism has raised questions about if Indigenous art belongs on alcohol packaging.

"A lot of my work is focused on empowering and uplifting Indigenous folks in any way that I can, and opening up conversations about things that can sometimes be hard to talk about," said Nancy King from Rama First Nation, who goes by the name Chief Lady Bird.

She designed a digital image that features a blackbird and stars for an Indigenous Brew Crew initiative meant to raise awareness and funds for Indigenous women's organizations in Ontario. 

The design has received positive feedback but some people have questioned why she would participate in a project that includes alcohol.

While there has been some criticism of Chief Lady Bird's label artwork, the response online has been mostly supportive. (Submitted by Chief Lady Bird)

"I understand the relationship to alcohol and how that can be harmful and has been harmful in a lot of ways but I also understand that that harm stems from colonialism and a lot of systemic issues. And for me, I never want to shame or fault people who have addiction issues," said Chief Lady Bird.

Her digital work often focuses on themes that include erotica, sexuality, body acceptance and self-love. She said she put a lot of thought into whether she would lend her work to the project, considering the stereotypes about Indigenous peoples and alcohol, and decided to donate the design with her main goal being raising money for organizations that need it.

"I know that alcohol and brewing and stuff like that is a bit controversial, but I fully supported their idea of giving back and wanting to do good within the work that they're doing," she said.

Chief Lady Bird said no sacred animals, symbols, pictographs or syllabics, or her usual woodlands style art were used in the design.

"I'm trying new things with this and I know the type of work that I normally do. But I did have to stay true to myself and do something that I was proud of," she said. 

"A lot of people are seeing the line through the middle as like a spirit line or as lightning but it was never the intent to make it appear as a thunderbird, because I don't think that a beer can is the place for our sacred stories and our cosmologies." 

Annie Beach is an artist in Winnipeg who was approached by a brewing company last summer to design a beer can logo. 

Even though proceeds of the proposed beer sales would have gone to Indigenous artists, Beach declined the offer because of her family's relationship with alcohol.

Annie Beach is a Winnipeg based artist who declined a similar offer to design a beer can label. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC )

"I just realized that it wasn't my job personally to be the artist to unpack all of that. At least not in this way and not at the time, and I'm thankful I made that choice," Beach wrote on a Facebook post.

She said she thinks misogyny plays a role in the criticism that Chief Lady Bird received.

"You want to stand by your work and be proud of your work, but it takes a lot of courage to do that," said Beach.

Beach said the conversations that have been started by Chief Lady Bird's artwork on the beer label is forcing the Indigenous community to talk about a subject that isn't always easy to talk about. 

Other Indigenous artists design beer labels

Kyle Williams, a Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) artist who has created six beer label designs for the Kahnawake Brewing Company, said people in his community thought it was cool that he was designing beer can labels, although he stayed away from anything that would resemble traditional Kanien'kehá:ka culture.

"We weren't going to put traditional designs on the beer can. It's more modern rez culture than the traditional culture," said Williams, whose designs focus mostly on the community's history of iron working.

Kyle Williams designed six labels for the Kahnawake Brewing Company featuring the community's connection to iron work. (Kyle Williams)

Williams said it's silly for Indigenous artists to be criticized for wanting their work to be put onto beer cans.

Justin Larrivee, a Cree and Métis artist and graphic designer living in Winnipeg, worked for Farmery Brewing for two years, helping the company design most of its branding and packaging.

He said Indigenous artists have to toe a fine line depending on where and who they collaborate with.

"I just believe that Indigenous people need to have the freedoms to do everything that non-Indigenous people can do," said Larrivee. 

"So even the idea of starting a brewery or making alcohol, you know, it should be accepted . . . because it's just a reality, like alcohol is not going to go away."


Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He was an associate producer with CBC Indigenous.