Last year, wild hemp flourished along Wounded Knee Creek, which flows through Manderson, SD. It’s been growing there and elsewhere across the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota for decades. The Oglala Lakota who inhabit this land have long known what the hardy green plants are. And everybody knows it’s not marijuana.
In the 1920s, Jesuit priests at a reservation missionary school actively cultivated hemp for use as fiber. Ever since, the feral relatives of those long-ago crops reappear each spring, sprouting anew across this broad landscape of rugged buttes and grassland—especially near creek beds, where the rich, moist soil can nourish growth. In those places, hemp plants can easily exceed 14 feet in height, and stalks often expand to the size of small tree trunks.
Last December, Rocky Afraid of Hawk came upon one of these monsters. It had been hacked down and left to ret, the centuries-old process of allowing the weather elements to break down the hemp plant as it lies in the field, facilitating the separation of fiber from the plant’s woody core, or hurd. Rocky is a Lakota elder and a skilled craftsman who carves bows for hunting and as gifts. Upon seeing the long, staff-like hurd, he wondered if it could it be carved into a workable hunting bow.
The answer, it turned out, was an emphatic yes: Hemp can be fashioned into a reliable, lethal hunting weapon just as easily as it can fulfill a variety of food, fuel and fiber needs. It’s one more use to be added to the vast list of applications that hemp cultivation could satisfy, and from which society would benefit—if only it was legal for farmers to grow hemp. Because, although the use of low-THC cannabis sativa for fiber, fuel, food and livestock forage spans millenniums, the past 70 years have seen a demonization of hemp by the nations of the world. Some have since wised up, but the US hasn’t.
The White Plume family knows all about that. For three consecutive years, from 2000 to 2002, Alex and Debra White Plume led a concerted effort on their tiospaye (family land holdings) to bring a hemp crop to harvest. But in all three years, their crops were raided and seized by federal law enforcement, despite an ordinance passed by the Oglala Lakota Tribal Council legalizing hemp cultivation.
During their third attempt to grow, they wound up in federal court. And though the court was sympathetic to the cause of hemp, it ruled that it was the responsibility of Congress to change the laws that prohibit hemp cultivation. The White Plumes were prohibited from growing any additional crops. (Ironically, there’s more wild hemp than ever growing on Pine Ridge these days, thanks to the DEA’s oafish seizure of the plants, which were hacked down and then dragged across the fields, thereby scattering thousands of seeds.)
But the White Plumes’ struggles only strengthened their resolve in matters of tribal sovereignty. In some ways, hemp has became synonymous with the issue—because if a tribe can’t choose what to do with its own land pursuant to its own tribal law, then how truly sovereign is it?
Despite their encounter with the Feds, the White Plumes remain stalwart hemp activists, and the global hemp community continues to recognize their dedication. When the home of Alex and Debra White Plume burned to the ground this past December, donations allowed them to rebuild using hemp insulation. The new house is also partially powered by solar panels.
This past summer, work was completed on rebuilding a community house that will serve as a local center for meetings and celebrations. It was primarily funded by Jeremy Briggs, a local environmentalist and concert promoter, who also provided the work crew. Construction entailed building walls using Hemcrete materials. With a high-lime cement mix as a binder, combined with broken-down hemp hurds and water, new walls were erected that will withstand the harsh elements on the prairie for generations. “Building our community house with hemp represents a statement of love and respect for Mother Earth and the standing silent nation—plants,” says Debra White Plume, a Lakota author and artist who has organized grassroots efforts dealing with territorial treaty protections and cultural-preservation issues for 30 years. “Construction can be done with a renewable plant with a growth cycle of 120 days, versus trees that take decades to mature. Using hemp in our community house is a direct action that shows there are ways to resist colonized thinking that human beings are above Creation. We show we can meet our needs while being respectful two-leggeds.”
An outdoor recreational area on their land has already been operating for years. It’s called Kiza Park, where festivals, weddings and many other types of gatherings convene. Both Kiza Park and the community house are powered by a wind turbine that was erected in 2002. Another wind turbine is planned, but in the meantime, when more energy is required, the Portable Energy Transport (PET) is put into action.
The PET is an invention of Hardtke Enterprises and High Plains Wind Energy. It’s a solar-panel and wind-turbine combo that is transported on the back of a small flatbed trailer. Matt Rankin, the president of High Plains and a close ally of the White Plumes, says: “As far as I know, this is the first rig to utilize multiple inputs—solar, wind, plus it even has a port for a hydroelectric unit. It’s quick, portable power. We even powered the cement mixer for the Hemcrete using the PET.”
Pine Ridge is one of the windiest regions in the country, a vast untapped source of renewable energy. Estimates suggest that if it could be harnessed, wind power would produce 4,000 times more energy than the tribe needs. Winona LaDuke, the prominent Native activist whose organization, Honor the Earth, financed the White Plumes’ wind turbine, asks: “Who would you rather depend on for energy power—the Saudis, or the Lakota?”
It seems almost absurd that in this remote and profoundly poor region, where the unemployment rate checks in at 80 percent and life expectancy is the lowest in the Western Hemisphere environmental projects can find traction. Nearly every other community in the US has more money and more expertise to mount such projects. Debra White Plume cites the reasons: “The Lakota worldview is known worldwide,” she explains. “Mitakuye oyasin—this means ‘all my relations.’ It designates all of Creation, including our first medicine: water. We must protect our relative for our future generations. Our ancestors fought the United States to a standstill in 1876 at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. This fight was over freedom and territory and a way of life. We owe this fight to our ancestors and our future generations.”
The fight she’s speaking of is the arrival of uranium interests on the reservation. This past winter, she led a successful battle to head off an environmental nightmare. In conjunction with the Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council, Debra’s nonprofit organization Bring Back the Way was able to expel the Native American Energy Group (NAEG) from Pine Ridge. NAEG—which has no discernible connection to any tribe—misrepresented its intent to mine uranium on tribal lands. The energy group was expelled by the tribal court and escorted off the reservation by Lakota warrior societies.
“It is our Lakota spiritual obligation to protect our relatives,” says Debra. “We had to stand in the way of something bad coming toward our people. It was a Crazy Horse moment. We had to choose to protect the earth that we borrow from our children. We made our stand against NAEG. Our people and our institutions stood together.”
But the battle is far from over. This is uranium-rich territory, and the focus now is on the multinational corporation Cameco Inc. from Saskatchewan, Canada. Cameco owns the Crow Butte Resources uranium mine in nearby Crawford, NE. This is an ISL mining operation that has had over 25 spills and leaks since it began. (ISL mining involves leaving the ore in the ground and recovering the minerals from it by dissolving them and pumping the pregnant solution to the surface. But if the ore is impermeable to the liquids used, the groundwater can be contaminated.) The tribe has been granted standing at the upcoming hearings that will address concerns about the mine. Debra is again at the forefront.
“Don’t you think there is something wrong with a government that outlaws the growing of industrial hemp by making the application process impossible, while at the same time it makes the application process to mine uranium relatively achievable?” she asks. “Cameco wants to expand and open three more ISL mines. This spells genocide for our people. We are a people of the land. Without good land, our way of life is destroyed; we are destroyed. Anyone who can read can understand that mining uranium is dangerous and has deadly impacts, from the extraction stage to the waste-storage stage. The government makes growing hemp a crime, but it has created something that cannot be destroyed—nuclear waste.
“Our families are proponents of life, not death,” she continues. “We use solar and wind power to be respectful, while meeting our modest energy needs for our children and home. This is the kind of support the United States government could be giving to all folks in this land, instead of giving tax credits to corporations to extract minerals and metals that, once unleashed, become contaminants that cannot be contained.”