Jazz M. Wolfe
Gaylord News

Oklahoma’s first Native-owned brewing company, inspired by the recipes of the owner’s father, will open an independent location this summer.

SkyDance Brewing Co., owned and operated by Jacob Keyes, opened in 2018 when Keyes, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma citizen, started the business in honor of his father. The company has been operating out of a co-op — a single location where multiple brewing companies use the same equipment — in Oklahoma City, but will move to an independent location.

Keyes and his father had always wanted to open their own brewery. One day, Keyes found a beer recipe of his dad’s and made it. His friends insisted he enter it into a competition, which he won. The evening Keyes won the competition, his brother called him to say their father had died.

“I felt like it was a sign I had to start the brewery,” Keyes said.

(Related: Craft brew with a side of culture)

Keyes is from Purcell, Oklahoma and has been involved with the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma since he was young. Before starting the brewery, he worked in the casino industry.

“If it wasn’t for the work I did in the gaming industry, I would not have seen all these Native Americans owning and operating their own businesses. It really helped encourage me to do the same.”

Keyes said he had some mental hurdles to jump over before he could fully commit to opening his own business.

“We’re told that... Native Americans aren’t meant to participate in the business world. We need to overcome that mindset. I had to.”

Throughout the pandemic, SkyDance Brewing Co. has experienced challenges, Keyes said. First, it became an issue of no longer being able to interact with customers directly.

“We have to sell all our beer through a bunch of middle-men, now,” Keyes said. “We’ve taken a direct hit to our profits.”

Next, building the independent location in Oklahoma City became even more difficult. The Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce offered some loans and grants to small businesses facing challenges during the pandemic.

“Minority businesses were some of the ones hit the hardest when the pandemic began,” said Eric Long, research economist of the Chamber of Commerce. “Small businesses were hit especially hard.”

SkyDance Brewing Co. currently offers five beer flavors, along with a few select “seasonal” beers such as “Sovereign Nation,” inspired by the process of the United States recognizing tribes as sovereign nations. The beer is distributed to gas stations and small bars in the Oklahoma City area.

“Small business is really frail,” said Jeff Seymour, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce. “We need to help small businesses be more flexible, nimble, and reactive in times like this.”

Assistance was provided by the Chamber of Commerce to businesses with 25 or fewer employees, with a majority of owners being racial minorities.

“Moving the city forward through small businesses is what we want to do here,” said Harve Allen, public relations manager of the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber of Commerce. “It’s the key to success.”

Native American-owned businesses and tribes have provided a significant amount of economic product in Oklahoma in the past several years, according to an Oklahoma City University study. In 2018, tribes provided $12.9 billion dollars in goods and services to Oklahoma.

Native American-owned businesses provide 96,177 jobs in Oklahoma, according to the National Congress of American Indians.

Keyes said most of his support comes from Native American-based resources.

“I got a loan from the Bureau of Indian Affairs long before I could get a federal or state loan. All the other loans I applied for were put on holds, but this one came quickly and helped the most.”

Despite the challenges faced over the past year by all businesses, Keyes is excited for the future.

“When we open this new location, we’ll have a showroom for Native American art. A lot of our beers will be named after (Native American) dances, too.This is our chance to teach people about our culture.”

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Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.