Pubdate: Tue, 13 Feb 2001
Source: MoJo Wire (US Web)
Copyright: 2001 Foundation for National Progress
Contact:  731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103
Fax: (415) 665-6696
Author: Leora Broydo and Don Trent Jacobs


When Alex White Plume planted a field full of industrial-grade hemp, 
he hoped that his crop might lift his family and community out of 
poverty. Then the DEA came to Pine Ridge.

Alex White Plume called it his "field of dreams": an acre and a half 
of plants so tall and strong they seemed to touch the sky; a crop 
representing hope for a new and self-sufficient life for his family, 
residents of the desperately impoverished Pine Ridge Indian 
Reservation in South Dakota.

But on Aug. 24, 2000 at sunrise, just four days before White Plume 
and his neighbors planned to harvest their bounty, White Plume awoke 
to the sounds of helicopters. He looked out the window and saw a 
convoy of vehicles heading for his field.

He raced down to investigate, and was met by a slew of black-clad and 
heavily armed figures -- 36 agents from the Drug Enforcement 
Administration, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the US 
Marshal's office.

When White Plume rolled down the window of his pick-up to ask what 
was going on, he says, one US marshal pointed a gun in his face. 
Meanwhile, the other agents chopped down each plant near the roots 
and hauled them away.

Alex White Plume's field after the raid.

You see, White Plume was growing industrial hemp, a botanical cousin 
of marijuana, in that field. According to tests conducted later by 
the BIA, White Plume's hemp contained only trace amounts of the 
psychoactive element THC. But U.S. drug laws do not distinguish 
between marijuana (which has a higher THC content) and other kinds of 
hemp, and growing either is illegal. (Although, unlike its policies 
on merijuana possession) federal law permits the possession or sale 
of mature stalks, fiber, and products made from hemp fiber and hemp 
seed oil; you just can't grow the stuff.)

Still, the raid at Pine Ridge wasn't your typical drug bust. The 
Oglala Sioux tribal government, which passed a resolution allowing 
White Plume to plant his crop, argues that the Fort Laramie Treaty of 
1868 gave Pine Ridge absolute sovereign status as an independent 
nation. The BIA, however, says Pine Ridge enjoys only "limited" 
sovereignty: While the tribe has its own government, constitution, 
and laws, it is subject to some federal oversight.

White Plume and the tribe knew that they'd be walking a thin line 
between sovereignty and US drug law. Pine Ridge's ordinance makes a 
distinction between industrial hemp and its psychoactive cousin and 
sets a threshold for distinguishing between the two at 1 percent THC. 
The US government makes no such distinction; any THC is too much, 
according to US law.

Robert Ecoffey, superintendent of the BIA on Pine Ridge, gave the 
tribe some hefty warnings before the seeds were planted. Ecoffey 
says, "I told them, if you're going to plant, I want to be upfront 
with you, you may be subjecting yourself to arrest and penalties." No 
arrests were made in connection with the raid, but the South Dakota 
US attorney's office says it may still prosecute.

In the tribe's view, the decision to grow industrial hemp is well 
within its right to self-determination. The tribal council based its 
approval of the hemp ordinance on the Fort Laramie Treaty, which sets 
apart land for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation" of 
the Lakota.

The gray zone between the Oglala Lakota people's right to 
self-determination and federal drug laws is where Alex White Plume 
now finds himself trapped.

"They're treating us like second-class citizens, like wards of the 
state," says White Plume, who is considering suing the government for 
compensation and has started soliciting donations to a legal fund. 
"To me, it's like the US going into Canada and raiding a hemp field 
over there."

"The US position is [that] the general drug laws apply equally on 
Indian reservations as they do anywhere else in the US," says Ted 
McBride, US Attorney for the district of South Dakota, who is 
handling the case. He says that federal law supersedes tribal law.

That sentiment infuriates some members of the tribe, whose 
resentments go back more than 200 years of treaties made with -- and 
broken by -- the US. The bloody history of US-Lakota relations 
includes the 1890 massacre of 180 Lakota at Wounded Knee, and the 
1973 siege at the same site.

Like many American Indian tribes, the Lakota were once a 
self-sufficient nation. Today the reservation is known for high rates 
of poverty, disease, alcoholism, and suicide. Poor living conditions 
are exacerbated by overcrowding because of a shortage of as many as 
2,000 housing units on Pine Ridge -- one family of 23 lives in a 
single trailer.

The Slim Butte Land Association encourages sustainable agriculture, 
including hemp, on the reservation.

Members of a Pine Ridge group called the Slim Butte Land Use 
Association want to change that. Five years ago, they decided to 
pursue a hemp project to create jobs and housing. They began by 
purchasing industrial hemp from Canada -- where it's been legally 
grown since 1998 -- to build a "demonstration house." The house, 
which is nearing completion, is built from "hempcrete" -- durable, 
concrete-like blocks that are made from hemp, cement, lime, and sand.

But if the hemp project is to succeed long-term, supporters say, the 
Oglala Lakota will have to grow their own instead of relying on 
expensive imports. That's why the tribe passed the ordinance, and 
Alex White Plume became a farmer.

Ironically, industrial-grade hemp was already growing wild on Pine 
Ridge, thanks to the federal government's "Hemp for Victory" campaign 
during World War II. White Plume used seeds from plants growing 
locally and from the Nebraska wetlands for his field.

"I can't describe the beauty of those plants," says White Plume. 
"Other than the pulling of the weeds, you don't have to add anything; 
no pesticides or fertilizers. They just grow. People came from all 
the country to see them-they were in awe."

To White Plume and his allies, the timing of the seizure seemed 
suspicious. First, the DEA waited until the plants were fully-grown 
to confiscate them. In addition, the agency chose to conduct the raid 
on the day the tribe's legal counsel, attorney Tom Ballanco, was in 
Kentucky defending actor Woody Harrelson in a separate hemp case. 
(Harrelson, coincidentally, had agreed to purchase White Plume's crop 
for use on the demonstration house.)

"They knew I was the attorney up there and that was the one day they 
could be sure I wasn't going to be at Pine Ridge," says Ballanco, a 
West Point grad who authored the tribe's hemp ordinance. "It 
certainly seems like a rather convenient choice of days given they 
had the entire summer to come get it."

In October, the DEA got authorization from a district court in South 
Dakota to burn the plants. Now the entire crop is, as they say, up in 

In the activists' view, the DEA raid contrasts sharply with other 
messages the federal government has been sending to Pine Ridge. Just 
one year before the raid, President Clinton visited the reservation 
to celebrate its designation as a federal "empowerment zone."

"You have suffered from neglect, and you know that doesn't work," 
Clinton said at the time. "You have also suffered from the tyranny of 
patronizing inadequately funded government programs, and you know 
that doesn't work. We have tried to have a more respectful, more 
proper relationship with the tribal governments of this country to 
promote more genuine independence, but also to give more genuine 

Winona LaDuke, an Ojibwe activist from the White Earth Reservation in 
northern Minnesota and Ralph Nader's running mate in the past two 
presidential elections, says, "I think it's federal double-speak or 
forked tongues. The federal government likes to support the 
sovereignty of Indian tribes when we talk about nuclear-waste dumps 
and casinos and toxic-waste dumps, but doesn't support their 
sovereignty when they try to do something which is absolutely 
healthy, sustainable development with grassroots initiatives."

In late November, a trailer full of Canadian hemp arrived on Pine 
Ridge. The shipment, donated by the Kentucky Hemp Growers Cooperative 
Association and the Madison Hemp & Flax Company, replaced the hemp 
lost in the raid so the tribe can finish its demonstration house.

But the tribe isn't settling for charity. On April 26, hemp seeds 
will once again be sown somewhere on the Pine Ridge reservation, 
although not on White Plume's land. The tribe's new president, John 
Yellow Bird Steele, has endorsed what is sure to be another bumper 
crop.  What do you think?
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MAP posted-by: Josh Sutcliffe