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Supporting Native Roasters And Serving Great Coffee At Bison Coffeehouse

Loretta Guzman is owner of Bison Coffeehouse in Portland, Oregon, the only Native-owned coffee establishment in town. Bison’s offerings showcase Native roasters from reservations throughout the United States.

I am a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe of Fort Hall, Idaho. My mother is Native American Indian, and my father is Hispanic. I initially planned on being a dental lab technician, but while going to school, I ended up sick with stage 4 cancer. While I was getting sick, I had the dream of a big bison—a symbol of resilience to our tribe. That dream stuck with me.

After I went into remission, I came home, finished school, and was working in coffee when I decided to open my own coffee place. I wanted it to specialize in carrying Native roasters, especially if they’re on reservations. My father owned a storage building, and he said I could have it, but it would need a lot of work because it was built in 1923. I worked on my coffee house myself for two years, getting everything ready and putting it together. I quit going to school, and I started putting all my money into the building. I would have money from working, from my tips, from my tribe, from my beadwork.

Photo by Dina Avila

When I was in the coffee world prior to opening my own business, all the coffee shops that had really good-quality coffee would advertise open jobs. But when I would come in to apply, they would tell me that they weren’t hiring. You knew they were looking for somebody else. I wasn’t white or a hipster. I wasn’t able to get into any of those places and get the hands-on training. I had worked at places that had coffee, but it was mediocre coffee. It wasn’t the top-of-the-line coffee that a lot of places were carrying at that time.

Once I decided I was going to open my own business, I would go into coffee houses where they had baristas who had won competitions, and just watch them. Of course, I would buy something, but I was studying them on my own. I wasn’t studying their look. I was studying their coffee and their equipment because I couldn’t get that training.

I knew who all the top coffee roasters were in Portland. We’re the coffee capital of the world, at least of the United States. I’ve traveled to many, many states, to New York, California, Chicago, trying coffee just to see what they have. I would say we have some of the best coffee in the world. I really think we do. I felt it was important for me to carry somebody local. People here in Portland know coffee.

In those two years I worked on my building, one of the things I did was go online and research coffee roasters all over the country. There were a lot of different coffees out there with Native names, and I would call them like, “Hey, are you guys Native?” And they were like, “No, we’re not. We just use the name.” What makes it okay for them to do that? I refuse to do business with non-Native roasters using Native names or imagery.

Photo by Dina Avila

Now things are changing. I saw a couple of those businesses had to change their names, and I was like, right on. Back then, it wasn’t my call to challenge them, because who am I? I’m only one person. I can only make a difference for myself.

Eventually I got my coffee house opened, and I started out with one Native roaster. Now I have Native coffee traders out of New York, in Sparks, Nevada, and on the border of California and Arizona, and I also have a local roaster. I wanted to serve really good coffee. I know that Native people always take pride in what they do, just like their artwork. We have some of the best artwork in the world, but Native artists do not get the recognition that they should. Everybody always wants to devalue them and pay them crumbs, where they would pay a white person thousands for a piece of artwork that is not even comparable. I wanted to make coffee from Native roasters the best that I could, and get their coffee out there.

My roasters work with me personally. We go back and forth—they send me samples until we’ve got it dialed in for the coffee house. It’s nice that they were willing to keep going back and forth until we got it just right.

Photo by Dina Avila

I wanted to carry Native roasters, and carry Native roasters on reservations, as our people started roasting coffee on their own. Some of them are really doing it. I’ve had other places reach out to me, or I’ve heard about different ones and I reached out to them, but it doesn’t always work out.

One of the Native roasters, my sister met on the powwow trail. My sister knew what I was looking for, and she would check out roasters’ coffee and talk to them. She knew I would love to have Native roasters on reservations, if possible, because our people have been colonized for a very long time, and supporting on-reservation businesses was a way for me to help decolonize the community in a small way.

Another roaster simply reached out to me. They came to me and said, “We just opened. We’ve only been open for two weeks, but we’ve been roasting on our own for five years.” And I said, “You guys are on a reservation, and I’d love to carry your coffee. Can you send me some samples?” I made it easy for them. I started talking “coffee talk” to them. They sent me their samples, and I started making suggestions.

They also asked me what my other roasters are charging, and I shared that information with them because I wanted us to be on board with each other. Some roasters are smaller, and they’ll say, “This is what we can afford to do.” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s workable for me.”

Photo by Dina Avila

During Standing Rock, my coffeehouse brought in a lot of stuff that protesters needed, such as unflavored, unscented Maalox when they were getting sprayed with tear gas and all that. I had family up there. My sister was up there working with the medics. Her husband was over there helping the elders. My sister would call me and say, “It’s super freezing over there, and they’re spraying our people with water.” And I would put calls out to our community here in Portland for different things that they needed, and people would bring it to the coffeehouse. People would stop by and say, “Hey, we’re headed to Standing Rock. Is there anything you’d like us to take?”

When Warm Springs had their issues with their water—their infrastructure is bad—we put a call out. People would bring water to the coffee house, and then I knew people who were going to visit their family in Warm Springs who offered to truck it over.

Each year I donate to one of the different organizations that are doing things to help our people. When I started raising awareness about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples, people didn’t know anything about it, really. One of the organizations we fundraised for was the Sahnish Scouts. The founder’s name is Lissa Yellow Bird. She actually helps search for the bodies. When I told her how much money I wanted to donate to her cause, she was in shock. She was like, “I’ve never gotten more than $100 from somebody at once.” For her to be able to give our people closure—you can put your child to rest and you can start your healing.

The other organization we worked with was the Medicine Wheel Riders, who ride to spread awareness and fundraise. They were stopping at cafes and coffee shops along their way throughout North America, so when they came to my coffee house, our Native community showed up for them. There were so many natives that showed up to honor them. They got them a hotel room. They took their clothes and washed them for them, fed them. The riders had a place where they could lock their bikes up so they would be safe. Everybody got to spend time with them.

Running your own business, you’re the one who everything falls on, especially when times get hard. You have to have that extra endurance to be able to push through, because there’s plenty of times when things are really hard. Also, I’m in remission from cancer, so I’ve had a lot of side effects from the chemo and the radiation. Sometimes it makes it really hard on me, but I’ve been able to push through it and keep pushing forward. You really have to be willing to take care of yourself during the process. People can get sick in the process because it’s very demanding of you.

Photo by Dina Avila

Sometimes you get the customers that are very needy. It’s like, “Why do I have to be the one you’re putting all your crap on? Why are you trying to take all my energy?” You have to just learn to shrug them off, and it’s not easy. You get all kinds of people. Everybody is not the same. I’m dealing with hundreds of personalities, and I’m going to stay who I am. I know that not everybody likes me. I don’t expect everybody to like me, but I’m going to do what I need to do to keep my business running. I can’t take any kind of nonsense from people, either. I can’t have people coming in and disrespecting my place or disrespecting my customers. But I’m going to keep on pushing forward for as long as I can.

These last few years have been a lot of work. I did good as far as making money, but I put that back into the business. I put cast-iron fences on part of it, I put cedar fences on other parts. I had concrete poured. I had outdoor seating and chairs and benches. And none of that was cheap. The first couple of weeks of the pandemic were slow, but by the third week, people were ready to die for coffee. They were like, “I don’t care. I’m coming out. I’m getting some coffee. Thank you for being here.” They were just happy. I was able to put counters outside, handrails, and awnings so that when the weather does change, people aren’t getting rained on. I added gravel and put in pavers—all that stuff cost thousands of dollars.

I would like for things to get a little easier on me personally. I could have just sat back and cried during hard times, but I had to push through it. I don’t really have big plans because for a while things were changing each week. Now I’m kind of stable here. I’ve got things where it’s good. But now we’ve got the high rise of prices. Everything is going up. My flour is up $5 a bag. My alternative milk is up to $20 a case. I’m trying not to raise my prices so high that people can’t afford it. There was a time when it was so hard to get cups and lids. With our supply chain, it’s messed up right now. Some people get an attitude with you about the prices. They don’t even know what I went through just to get these cups right here, you know?