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The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in the southwest corner of South Dakota, is a stark domain of dry plains and eroded buttes — the last refuge of the Oglala Lakota, or Oglala Sioux. They once shared the Great Sioux Reservation with the other Lakota nations — covering half of present-day South Dakota, including the mineral-rich timberlands in the Black Hills. Beyond this expanse, parts of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana were designated “unceded” hunting grounds. These were the terms of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, the fruit of Chief Red Cloud’s Powder River War.

The treaty was, of course, broken — first, after the 1874 Custer Expedition discovered gold in the Black Hills, and Congress voted to unilaterally confiscate them, along with the “unceded” territory. The Lakota and their allies launched the Great Sioux War in response to abrogation of the treaty, dealing Gen. George A. Custer a humiliating death and defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn — although in the end, they had to accept the diminished reservation. Through further reductions of the Lakota homeland, Pine Ridge would remain a symbol of resistance.

In 1890, it was the scene of the Wounded Knee massacre, when the US cavalry killed some 300 to put down the Ghost Dance revivalist movement. And in 1973, it was the scene of a second Wounded Knee incident, when the American Indian Movement (AIM) seized a trading post at the village to press their demands for Congressional hearings on broken treaties. Two AIM militants were killed in shoot-outs with the FBI. A 1975 shoot-out at an AIM camp on Pine Ridge left one Indian and two FBI agents dead — and led to the notorious case of Leonard Peltier, the AIM militant still in prison for the murders of the FBI men, despite revelations of withheld evidence and demands for his release by Amnesty International.

Hemp Warrior

Pine Ridge is the home of Alex White Plume, who has prevailed over long federal attempts – including three DEA raids on his farm – to shut down his hemp-stead on the reservation.

White Plume now has two acres of hemp under cultivation. “I’m trying to buy an extracting machine, to extract CBD myself,” he tells Project CBD. “Extract it and market it right here myself, on the reservation.” He believes it could be effective for common ailments on the rez, from arthritis to veterans suffering from PTSD.

“I also have potential buyers in Europe,” he says. “I get calls every day from people wanting to know when I’ll have it for sale.” But he expresses a wariness of the global market, as he remains rooted in his traditional Lakota values.

“I’m fluent in my language, so it’s difficult for me to venture into the capitalist world, and there’s a line I won’t cross,” he says. “We have to reclaim our sovereignty based on kinship. I try to include my family in everything I do. I step into the capitalist world, and step back out. I’m trying to find a middle ground.”

White Plume, a former Oglala Sioux tribal councilman who also briefly served as tribal president in 2006, grew up on his Pine Ridge farm. Even before planting hemp, he was part of an effort by the Oglala Lakota to reunite their fragmented patrimony in “land-use associations,” which correspond to tiospayes — the extended families that are the oldest form of Lakota government, but had been largely broken up by BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] policy. His 210-acre farm is part of the White Plume tiospaye, a registered landowners’ association of 4,000 acres.

He views hemp as part of a regeneration of self-sufficiency and sustainable culture on a reservation that suffers from some of the worst poverty in the United States.

Land-Use Associations

Land-use associations on the Pine Ridge reservation are experimenting with using “hempcrete” — a mix of hemp hurds and hydrated lime — to build “hemp houses” or “earthships.” The latter is a new kind of heat-efficient dwelling designed by Earthship Biotecture of Taos, NM. Mostly underground, it is protected by a domed shell consisting of earth, recycled materials such as tires and beer cans, and fiber-based bricks.

The Oglala Lakota Cultural & Economic Revitalization Initiative (OLCERI) is constructing a similar earthship-style building as a community center in cooperation with Tiyospaye Winyan Maka and other reservation land associations. This one is designed by Engineers Without Borders of Fort Collins, Colortado. The foundation was nearly complete when work was slowed by the pandemic.

OLCERI has built several “sustainable homes” on Pine Ridge using such fiber-based materials as cob — a mix of sand, clay, and straw. Also under consideration is hempcrete, although legal ambiguities have meant some hesitancy.

In addition to hemp, the WaCinHinSka (White Plume) tiospaye is growing watermelon, onions, potatoes and jalapeños, and raising horses and buffalo. Alex is especially proud of his buffalo, which the White Plume tiospaye lives off. “One buck will get the family through a year,” he says. “These are the purest buffalo left. They’ve never been cross-bred with cattle.”

But it was his hemp cultivation that led to yet another Lakota confrontation with federal power.

DEA Raids Pine Ridge

Hemp, once a widespread crop on Pine Ridge, was planted again on April 29, 2000 — the 132nd anniversary of the signing of the Fort Laramie Treaty. White Plume announced the planting on the reservation’s KILI Radio. He publicly invited the US Attorney in Rapid City, SD, and the local BIA supervisor to attend and witness. Both declined to show up when the 1.5-acre field was seeded.

White Plume had authority to grow hemp from the Pine Ridge government, designated the Oglala Sioux Tribe or OST. In July 1998, the tribal council had passed an ordinance distinguishing hemp from marijuana and allowing cultivation of the former — a full 20 years before the Farm Bill did the same thing for the United States. The tribal ordinance instated a 1% THC limit. It required growers to form land-use associations and register with the OST Land Committee, which was to “interface” with “any interested law enforcement.” The OST’s then-President John Yellow Bird Steele publicly endorsed the White Plume planting.

But on August 24, 2000, just before harvest time, some 30 DEA and FBI men and US Marshals invaded the White Plume homestead. Alex woke to sounds of helicopters before dawn, looked out the window and saw the convoy of vehicles heading for the hemp field. He jumped in his truck. Arriving at the field, he was ordered to freeze and had an M-16 stuck in his face. Children, nieces, and nephews who had gathered at the field, watched, some in tears.

The DEA knew what they chopped down and hauled away was rope, not dope. The DEA’s warrant request actually cited a sample plant that Alex gave a BIA investigator who had warned him his field was illegal. The sample was forwarded to the federally-contracted Marijuana Research Facility at the University of Mississippi. “That analysis revealed that the plants contained no detectable quantity of THC,” according to the warrant request.

Agents claimed to have uprooted 3,782 plants. Under federal law at the time, possessing over 1,000 plants is punishable by 10 years to life, regardless of THC content.

A one-sixteenth-acre test plot on tribal land leased by the Slim Butte land-use association was raided the same morning. Oglala Sioux tribal authorities were not even notified of the raids.

While the conservative Rapid City Journal headline read “Marijuana crops raided,” Alex’s brother Percy White Plume told the Lakota Nation Journal: “This is the same kind of treatment we’ve been getting for the last 150 years. Standing here watching them cut down and take away our crop, I had a small feeling of how our ancestors felt when they were told not to go off the reservation, that they couldn’t hunt buffalo …”

Protest in Rapid City

The White Plume tiospaye was joined by actor Woody Harrelson and 100 supporters at a September 2000 protest outside the Rapid City federal building.

Both the land-use association and the California-based Tierra Madre company, which had contracted to buy much of the harvest, filed suit to have the hemp returned. But District Judge Richard Battey in Rapid City denied an injunction to halt destruction of the plants after the prosecution argued that “any injunction … cannot undo the fact the plants are already rotted.”

In 2001, OST President John Yellow Bird Steele wrote a letter to then-US Attorney for South Dakota Michelle Tapken, asserting the Lakota nation’s right to grow hemp under provisions of the Fort Laramie Treaty. While the treaty recognized “unceded lands” for buffalo hunting, it also included provisions to encourage agriculture on the reservation as conducive to settled life.

White Plume’s family planted another crop in 2001 — only to watch the feds cut and seize it again in a raid of the farmstead that May.

The family planted yet a third crop the next year. In July 2002, DEA agents seized samples — this time sending them off to the University of Mississippi lab, which confirmed that they were “marijuana” (despite low THC content). It was clear the feds were going to do more than just seize the crop this time.

Push had come to shove, and negotiations ensued. White Plume agreed not to resist this third confiscation of his crop in exchange for a pledge that no criminal charges would be filed against him. And when the farm was again raided and the crop seized the following month, White Plume was instead served civil charges. Prosecutors sought a federal injunction specifically barring him from growing hemp.

Despite the DEA’s initial claim, the case (once again) did not turn on THC content. The White Plume family denied that the crop was “marijuana.” They asserted that they were “cultivating industrial hemp exclusively for industrial or horticultural purposes” and were “exempt from the application of the Controlled Substances Act.” But in December 2004, the Rapid City district court ruled that “hemp is a variety of Cannabis sativa L.” and the chemical difference between hemp and marijuana was not relevant. White Plume was barred by federal court order from growing hemp for life.

White Plume Prevails

But his dream lived on. In October 2014, Alex travelled to Boulder, where he was specially honored by GrowHempColorado at the Industrial Hemp Awards & Festival.

That year’s Farm Bill, with its limited provision for experimental hemp cultivation, would prove a turning point for White Plume’s efforts. In March 2016, District Judge Jeffrey Viken in Rapid City lifted the injunction on White Plume, citing the “shifting legal landscape,” which made continued enforcement “detrimental to the public interest.”

“This order brings some justice to Native America’s first modern-day hemp farmer,” said his attorney Timothy Purdon. “For over 10 years, Alex White Plume has been subject to a one-of-a-kind injunction which prevented him from farming hemp.”

But the order did not explicitly address the question of whether cultivation of hemp on the reservation should be recognized as legal. Alex White Plume, of course, asserts that it is. “I had rights under our sovereign powers,” he says. “We’re a treaty tribe, we retained territory under treaty with the United States. If state police come on the reservation, they can be arrested for trespassing.”

White Plume defiantly resumed hemp cultivation in 2017, with no further interference from the feds. And in March 2020, the USDA approved the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s hemp production plan — which means that, finally, White Plume is unambiguously in the legal clear. Five other Lakota growers also planted hemp on Pine Ridge this year.

South Dakota, meanwhile, has been slow to get on the hemp bandwagon. In March 2019, the state’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem vetoed a bill that would have allowed hemp cultivation in the state. A year later, she finally capitulated and signed such a bill, following a long battle with legislators.

Of course, technically state law made no difference on Pine Ridge. But White Plume says the state’s foot-dragging impacted him anyway. “I had a difficult time to sell my hemp because the state didn’t legalize it,” he says. “I lost a lot of opportunities to sell, because people didn’t believe me that I was growing legally.”

When Project CBD spoke with him in October 2020, White Plume was preparing to harvest — waiting on a certificate from a DEA-approved lab in Colorado that his crop is within the THC limit.

“My nine children and 37 grandchildren all pitch in for the harvest,” he says. “I love ‘em all. They’re all smart, beautiful Lakota people.”

Sioux Nations Look to Hemp

The Oglala Lakota are the westernmost of the Sioux nations, which extend as far east as Minnesota. Known in their own tongue as the Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, they make up a loose confederation of tribal governments — several of which are looking to hemp for economic renewal. The Sicangu Lakota, or Rosebud Sioux Tribe, whose reservation borders Pine Ridge on the east, also have a hemp cultivation plan approved by the USDA.

The Hunkpapa Lakota, or Standing Rock Sioux, are across the state line in North Dakota. After North Dakota legalized hemp cultivation in 2015, they immediately expressed an interest in growing, and now this tribe has a plan approved by the USDA. They gained fame four years ago with their protest campaign against the planned Dakota Access Pipeline, which drew support from Native peoples and their ecologist allies across the United States.

After protesters camped for weeks on the frigid North Dakota plains and faced off with militarized state police forces in the autumn of 2018, President Obama’s administration blocked completion of the pipeline. But President Trump immediately revived construction of the pipeline, and the Standing Rock Sioux are still fighting the project in the courts.

At the eastern end of South Dakota, the Isanti Dakota or Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe actually brought a lawsuit against the USDA in June 2019 over the Department’s failure to issue regulations allowing Indian nations to grow hemp. District Judge Karen Schreier in Sioux Falls denied the tribe’s request for a preliminary injunction that would have allowed cultivation to commence. The case was dropped when the regulations were finally promulgated, and the tribe’s hemp plan won approval that December.

Said the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in a statement announcing approval of its plan: “The tribe is confident that this plant is not only an incredible economic opportunity because of its vast product offerings” but is “also beneficial to the environment.”

Plans for THC-Rich Cannabis

After the states of Washington and Colorado voted to legalize adult use of THC-rich cannabis (“marijuana”) in 2012, some Sioux nations considered it their right to do likewise. But in 2014 the Oglala Sioux tribal council voted down a proposal to allow marijuana cultivation on Pine Ridge. The council’s Law & Order Committee chairwoman Ellen Fills the Pipe said before the vote: “For me, it’s a drug. My gut feeling is we’re most likely going to shoot it down.”

The San Francisco Chronicle’s cannabis-friendly Smell the Truth blog couldn’t refrain from noting the irony of the chairwoman’s name, but also acknowledged fears, realistic or not, that reservation weed sales might exacerbate already existing alcohol and substance abuse problems.

In June 2015, the Flandreau Santee Sioux voted to legalize cultivation and use of marijuana on their tribal lands. Later that year, tribal leaders announced plans for the addition of a cannabis-themed resort to the reservation’s successful casino. Marijuana grown on the reservation was to be available in a new nightclub and “smoking lounge.” Plans for “social consumption” of cannabis were being pioneered by the Santee Sioux before various states and municipalities around the country started pursuing the idea. “We want it to be an adult playground,” tribal President Anthony Reider told the Associated Press at the time.

But that November, the Tribal Council voted to temporarily suspend their marijuana operation. Immediately following the vote, the tribe’s first THC-rich cannabis crop was burned in the fields – a decision taken after South Dakota officials warned that legalization on the reservation would only be seen as applying to tribal members. Thus non-tribal members using cannabis on the reservation could be prosecuted under state law. Rather than risk a confrontation with state authorities, the tribe agreed to suspend the project.

A Tactical Retreat

The move was explicitly seen as a tactical retreat. Tribal attorney Seth C. Pearman said in a statement: “After government-to-government consultation with the United States, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is temporarily suspending its marijuana cultivation and distribution facilities. This suspension is pivotal to the continued success of the marijuana venture … The Tribe will continue to consult with the federal and state governments and hopes to be granted parity with states that have legalized marijuana. The Tribe intends to successfully participate in the marijuana industry, and Tribal leadership is undaunted by this brief sidestep.”

Instead, their ambitions were parlayed into hemp cultivation after the 2018 Farm Bill — only to be met with nearly a year of stonewalling by the USDA.

The Santee Sioux are certainly owed some long-delayed justice from Uncle Sam, given their all too familiar history of violent expropriation of traditional lands, followed by forced relocation. They briefly made news in December 2012, when tribal members made a horseback pilgrimage to Mankato, Minn. The cross-country ride was made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the 1862 mass public hanging there of 38 Dakota Sioux men, for crimes allegedly committed in that year’s US-Dakota War — the largest mass execution in US history. The execution order was personally signed by President Abraham Lincoln.

After the Civil War, the Dakota were pushed west from their Minnesota homeland and became known as the Santee Sioux. They settled at Flandreau and a second Santee Sioux reservation in Nebraska. The Nebraska branch of the Santee, the Santee Sioux Nation, also now has a hemp plan with USDA approval.

And in March 2020, Oglala tribal members approved an initiative to change the cannabis laws on the Pine Ridge reservation. In late October, the tribal council followed through on the will of the voters. Cannabis cultivation and possession, both for medical and general adult use, are now legal at Pine Ridge.

The tribal council vote came just a week before the national elections in which South Dakota was among six states to approve initiatives loosening cannabis laws. In two separate South Dakota ballot measures, both medical marijuana and adult-use cannabis were legalized.

See other articles in the Hemp & Native American Sovereignty series.

Bill Weinberg, a Project CBD contributing writer, is a 30-year veteran journalist in the fields of drug policy, ecology and indigenous peoples. He is a former news editor at High Times magazine and produces the websites and Global Ganja Report. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.

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Project CBD is made possible by the support of our partners.