By Winona LaDuke

It’s been twenty years since Alex White Plume planted his first hemp crop on Wounded Knee Creek. Wounded Knee Creek is on the Pine Ridge reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota. Soon spring will come, after a winter buried in epic snowstorms and the grass will be more green than ever. Soon it will be time to plant. In 2020, Alex White Plume will introduce a new crop, he is the Hemperer of a cannabis economy for Native people. 

“Who killed the hemp industry and where is the body?” That is the question. There was once a thriving hemp industry in North America. After all, the word canvas comes from the word cannabis, that’s a lot of sails. The mystery of a missing infrastructure body is what we’ve been trying to solve at White Plume Hemp and Winona’s Hemp. During three years of our investigations, following interesting dead ends and looking into crazy leads, we are now looking at European and Chinese technology; because here the body has disappeared from the crime scene. Remnants of an American hemp industry have been buried by seventy years of fossil fuel economics.

There was a time when we had the choice between a carbohydrate economy and a hydrocarbon economy. The carbohydrate economy was hemp and the hydrocarbon economy is what we ended up with. Unfortunately, the wrong choice was made and now we must restart. We are sure that together, tribal nations in North America can build a sustainable economy for the future. The hemp or cannabis plant is one with 10,000 different uses, and we are now revisiting the opportunity to do something right. After all, if you could replace plastics in the material economy, synthetics in the textile industry, and opioids in the drug trade, why wouldn’t you? Hemp corresponds to the needs of our society more than ever before, it sequesters carbon at a higher rate than almost any other crop. Hemp can be used to create low carbon buildings, it’s an incredible food source, it can clothe you, and fuel your tractor.   

Tribes are currently in a unique position. Tribal sovereignty gives tribal governments leeway in the development of cannabis policies; this will be a stabilizing force in some turbulent times. Today, we see that the combination of the conflicting and ever-changing regulations with the lucrative cannabis industry growth, set a complex scene. 

 Santee poet John Trudell understood hemp as a revolutionary transformation, urging the Indian Country to move forward. Although he passed to the Spirit world in 2013, today his dreams are coming true. Take the case of the Flandreau Dakota tribe in South Dakota for instance. The Dakota have been interested in cannabis for several years, initially to look at recreational legalization and more recently to look at a hemp crop, i.e.: something without THC. The approval of the Farm bill in 2018 opened the door nationally for cannabis, but there are some big caveats. That’s to say, we can grow it, but there is currently no way to process hemp into thread in the US, at least at a commercial scale. This is one of the most baffling, yet ultimately promising realities for tribal nations. Firstly, many farmers who grew huge CBD plots this past year were faced with some big losses due to the CBD market already being flooded. Secondly, state regulations particularly in a state like South Dakota (part of the Deep North) prohibit hemp, while the federal government has simultaneously approved it. Hence, large land-based tribes like Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and Cheyenne River, all within the borders of South Dakota have an incredibly promising crop in a state which has banned it. That’s South Dakota. Governor Kristi Noem vetoed industrial hemp production in 2019, after the bill had passed through the South Dakota legislature. As the Oglalas prepare to move ahead, it’s clear the state and the Oglala Nation at Pine Ridge will be in conflict. That’s no surprise.

In the meantime, Wyoming’s governor signed the first state-level hemp law under the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill. Wyoming Rep. Bunky Loucks sponsored the legislation. The Republican representative had a message for South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem: “Tell her I hope she vetoes it, because that would be good for Wyoming,” he said. The bill was finally approved in Wyoming, but South Dakota remained a hold out state.

South Dakota, by many guesses, will be one of the last states to legalize this crop, despite promising economics in the industry and an immense agricultural opportunity. In the meantime, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe illustrates the complexity of tribal and state conflicts. Last year’s crop on the reservation was destroyed after the Santee were told they would be raided by federal agents. The state of South Dakota ended up prosecuting non-Indians who worked with the tribe. In 2019, the Santee submitted one of the successful permit applications to the USDA. That’s for 2020.

During the National Congress of American Indians winter session in February, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Stephen Censky said his agency had approved seven tribal hemp plans so far. “We have more that are in the queue,” Censky told tribal leaders. According to the USDA website, more than two dozen tribes have submitted plans or are in the process of doing so in order to enter the hemp industry.

The challenges are many, but the opportunity is much greater. It’s not about the money, it’s about transforming the economy and our future. That’s one of the reasons why tribes are so important. The Trump Administration has successfully muddied the waters more in hemp production, demanding THC level testing in quarter-acre plots of hemp and throughout the season. That gets expensive, and unmanageable.

 The national level is .3% THC, below that your hemp crop is legal, above it is not. The .3% was set a while back. The problem is that most of the hemp being grown in this country is CBD, or CBD varietals. Most of those originated from cannabis varieties like Kush, (Afghani), Thai, or Mexican varieties. Those strains have been bred to in this day and age have up to 25% THC. Breeding out a tendency for THC, a natural part of the plant’s chemistry is challenging to say the least.

Fiber varieties, like those I grow, come from European varieties (French, Italian, Czech, Romanian, and more), Chinese varieties are not so available, and those varieties have been bred with oilseed varieties ( X 59 a big one from Canada). In short, all of these varieties are not easily found, and the ones which are used in the CBD market are often genetically unstable wanting to return to their higher THC relatives or ancestors.

Many growers find the .3% arbitrary, and punitive. After all, why smoke some X 59 variety when you could smoke high-quality cannabis? Don’t punish the plant.Over time, tribes (if working together) can likely protect their seed varieties and develop crops appropriate for each possible industry: food, oil, fiber, construction. The future is not a competition, it’s cooperation, and that’s the New Green Revolution.

The Oatman family from the Nez Perce reservation is taking on new leadership to build a stronger collaborative. Tribes across the country are keen on building a collaborative environment to learn and grow in this Green Revolution together. “This issue is so critical, and it’s moving at such a fast pace, that we need single-focused vision and collaborative efforts.” Judy Oatman explained as she and her family launched the Tribal Hemp and Cannabis (THC) magazine. Her grandmother, Alice “Jeanie” (Johnson) Warden, was sent to prison for growing marijuana on her Nez Perce family’s allotments. As a third-generation farmer, Oatman is now taking her family history as inspiration to grow the next economy.

In a video message at the THC Launch party,  Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) tied hemp and cannabis to the inherent right of tribes and it’s citizens to determine their own futures.”Part of tribal sovereignty is deciding which industries to engage in and how best to create economic opportunities for your tribe.” Haaland said. “But the federal laws regarding cannabis and hemp stand in the way right now,” Haaland explained. “That’s why I support legalizing recreational marijuana and opening up agriculture to hemp farming opportunities.”

Other leaders in the Cannabis renaissance include  Walker River Paiute Tribe, whose leaders entered into a government-to-government agreement with the state of Nevada to address marijuana on their lands. Chairwoman Amber Torres attended the magazine launch and said she stands with Judy Oatman’s plan.  

In the midst of a federal muddle created since the passage of the Farm Bill, tribes are carefully preparing to plant. Some tribes will venture into CBDs, others into medical marijuana and recreational cannabis. There are many choices to be made, and the plant has something for everyone. The Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Dakota will continue to grow fiber cannabis, working with the University of Minnesota geneticists. The Red Lake Nation has put medical marijuana up for referendum vote this summer, and if approved will be the first Indigenous nation in Minnesota to move ahead with medical marijuana. In the face of wildcards created by history and federal regulations, complicated by a missing industry infrastructure, we move ahead on faith.

Indeed, Minnesota used to have eleven hemp mills. The state provided canvas, fabric, and rope across the country and those mills were a green economy. That economy was killed by the logging, plastics, and cotton industry. However, in the time of change brought on by the end of the fossil fuels economy, cannabis and hemp are returning. We have not found the body. Still, the New Green Revolution is coming, Native people do not want to be sidelined. It’s spring on Wounded Knee Creek, the promise of seeds and a future is something we can taste in the warm spring winds.  


Winona LaDuke is the Co- founder and Executive Director of Honor the Earth, a non- profit, environmental justice organization comprised mostly of Indigenous people and based in northern Minnesota. www. honorearth.org

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