A vast, empty New Mexican sky is slowly fading to indigo as locals drift into a beer hall set in a converted 10,000-square-foot industrial warehouse. I grab a stool and order a Cosmic Arrow Saison, an amber-colored Belgian-style brew aged oak barrels. On one wall, high above the communal benches and the kegs from the onsite brewery, hangs a rainbow flag. On another, the stylized bust of a buffalo head surveys the proceedings.
“My grandfather used to raise buffalo," Shyla Sheppard tells me. “When I was growing up, we were told to be like the buffalo, because they never turn their back on a storm. They face it.”
She must have taken the message to heart, because Sheppard, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, has certainly never shied away from a challenge. In 2016, she co-founded Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. with her partner, both in business and romance, Missy Begay, a member of the Diné Nation. Albuquerque, New Mexico currently boasts more than 50 micro- and nanobreweries, but none are quite like this one. Not only is Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. the only Native woman-owned brewery in the United States, but it’s also a radically inclusive space, a haven for the local LGBTQ and indigenous communities, as well as anyone else who wants to come drink a cold one. What’s more, in a small yet significant way, these two women are helping to redefine perceptions of Native-American culture by incorporating their heritage in a way that feels contemporary but not watered down for mass-consumption.
“Every element here has a story. We’re from different tribes, but both of our families are very artistic. I have relatives that do beadwork and regalia, and Missy is related to silversmiths and weavers,” Sheppard says. “Ultimately, both of us bring this strong connection to and respect for the land. We grew up with these ceremonies and these ways of life, so we’ve just carried that forward.”
When developing the branding, both Sheppard and Begay were careful to steer clear of clichés. Everything here is grounded in specifics, in contrast to the garish feathered headdresses stolen by the festival-going set. Many of the small-batch brews on the rotating menu draw on regional southwestern ingredients, from roasted blue corn kernels to foraged Navajo tea to wild sumac, while names like Denim Tux Lager, Fancy Feathers Brut IPA, Fringe Jacket Saison, and Savage Times Sour IPA are cheeky nods to reservation subcultures.
“There’s a lot of appropriation, so it’s important to us that we can bring something forward in an authentic way,” Sheppard says. “We’re not looking to just be cool or kitschy.”
While the two women may be relatively new to the brewing scene, they’re no strangers to doing things their own way. Sheppard remembers growing up on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota in a town with neither a gas station nor post office. She spent most afternoons playing outside, riding through the hills, or swimming with her cousins. When she wanted to be alone, she’d go for long runs along the lakeshore.
“We had to be creative keeping ourselves entertained. We weren’t wealthy, but at the same, I lived in a small, safe community. We had our culture. We had our celebrations and pow-wows,” says Sheppard, who still returns home for her tribe’s annual dances. “Looking back, I feel very fortunate.”
After graduating from high school with just eight other classmates, Sheppard went straight to Stanford University. The academic transition was a shock to her system at first and catching up with her classmates meant late nights and long hours. All that extra work paid off, and she soon thrived as an economics major.
“Like many rural areas, from an educational standpoint, we hadn’t had a lot of opportunities that other folks might have had,” Sheppard says. “At the end of the day, I’m of the mentality that whatever cards you’re dealt, you work with you’ve got.”
During her time at Stanford, Sheppard met Begay at a student center for the university’s small indigenous community. Whenever the two had the chance to take a break from studying, they would head to a brewpub in Palo Alto specializing in traditional German-style beers. It was their first introduction to craft brewing, and both were hooked instantly.
“Neither of us was really educated about different beer styles or the history behind them back then. It sparked our curiosity, to the extent that we continued to seek out local craft beers whenever we traveled,” Sheppard says. “We got into homebrewing ourselves. At the time, it was just a hobby.”
For years following graduation, beer remained a hobby as Begay worked her way through medical school. Meanwhile, Sheppard plunged into social impact investing, a subset of venture capitalism, with a focus on businesses that sought to improve clean water technologies, green building products, and medical screening technologies.
“I spent almost a decade supporting and investing in entrepreneurs. In the back of my mind, I always wanted to start my own business,” Sheppard recalls. Having seen what it took to launch a small business, however, she had her reservations about doing so until she found the right one. “If you’re going to do a startup, it’s going to consume most of your life, so it should be something you’re really passionate about.”
Running the brewery may go above and beyond the normal demands of a conventional job, but the couple remains deeply committed to it. Both Begay and Sheppard are proud of the contributions they’re making to their communities. From the very beginning, they’ve been strong supporters of local nonprofits and have used the beer hall to host events ranging from Pride celebrations to a panel dedicated to bolstering women in the forest service. Through their actions and entrepreneurial success in a largely male-dominated industry, the two women are challenging preconceptions of what a leader in the craft beer community can look like.
“Initially, people are surprised,” Sheppard says of when some visitors find out who runs the show here. “When they see all of the effort, thoughtfulness, and work that we’ve put into creating Bow & Arrow, at the end of the day they respect that.”