The Renaissance of Tribal Hemp

Winona LaDuke April 21, 2018

Winona LaDuke on her industrial hemp farm. The farm's 40 acres are located on the White Earth Indian Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

This spring, after gath­er­ing on the White Earth Indi­an Reser­va­tion in north­west­ern Min­neso­ta and then in Col­orado, trib­al hemp­sters” are work­ing toward a renais­sance of the plant that once clothed much of Europe and North Amer­i­ca. Trib­al hemp grow­ers from the Meskwa­ki, Lako­ta, Menom­i­nee, Man­dan, Hidat­sa, Colville and oth­er Native nations are plant­i­ng the seeds of a new econ­o­my — respond­ing with an inno­v­a­tive and holis­tic approach to the many chal­lenges Native and non-Native com­mu­ni­ties face.

These new, young trib­al lead­ers are tak­ing a place at the table of the $700 mil­lion U.S. hemp indus­try — an indus­try that can lit­er­al­ly trans­form much of the mate­r­i­al, food and ener­gy world. As hemp returns as a viable part of food, cloth­ing, hous­ing, med­i­cine and fuel sys­tems, trib­al hemp lead­ers are keen to not only be a part of the indus­try, but to trans­form their communities. 

In ear­ly April, at the NoCo Hemp Expo in Love­land, Colo., the near lim­it­less poten­tial of hemp was on dis­play. An esti­mat­ed crowd of 10,000 curi­ous enthu­si­asts, among them Native peo­ple, crowd­ed into the con­ven­tion cen­ter to view hemp in forms you can fuel your car with, eat in choco­late or pesto sauce, slather on as sham­poo, and wear. The trade show was not about bongs” and tie-dye — rather, it fea­tured the lat­est har­vest­ing and pro­cess­ing equip­ment, inno­va­tions in hemp farm­ing and up-to-date reg­u­la­to­ry analysis. 

The indus­try has cer­tain­ly arrived in good time.

April 7, 2018 — Winona LaDuke (third from the left) and Muriel Young­Bear (cen­ter) gath­er with oth­er indige­nous hemp lead­ers for a pic­ture at the NoCo Hemp Expo in Love­land, Colo. (Image: Sarah LittleRedfeather)

Muriel Young­Bear, a mem­ber of the Meskwa­ki Nation in Tama, Iowa, is a sec­ond year attendee of the expo. Cur­rent­ly a Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas grad­u­ate stu­dent study­ing busi­ness, she’s been attend­ing hemp-relat­ed con­fer­ences, net­work­ing with indus­try lead­ers, vis­it­ing Col­orado grow­ing oper­a­tions and work­ing with­in trib­al eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment cir­cles to become an edu­ca­tion­al resource for native nations. While look­ing for alter­na­tives to fos­sil fuels, tim­ber, plas­tics and cot­ton prod­ucts, Young­Bear became inspired by hemp.

Ini­tial­ly, I start­ed this jour­ney after see­ing the unsus­tain­able busi­ness prac­tices our trib­al com­mu­ni­ties are deal­ing with and I am deter­mined to find an alter­na­tive. Hemp is the way to do that,” says Young­Bear. She adds, I want our com­mu­ni­ties to be a place peo­ple run to, not from.” 

Under­stand­ing that edu­ca­tion about the plant’s poten­tial was the one piece miss­ing in Indi­an Coun­try,” Young­Bear began a social media cam­paign to pub­li­cize speak­ing ses­sions with her tribe, water pro­tec­tor camps and Iowa senators. 

Out West, Dustin Fin­ley has been work­ing with the Con­fed­er­at­ed Tribes of the Colville Reser­va­tion in north-cen­tral Wash­ing­ton to estab­lish an indus­tri­al hemp project. This past year, the tribe grew 60 acres of hemp in the state — the largest grow by any tribe. I want to make our com­mu­ni­ties one again,” says Finley. 

Like Young­Bear, Fin­ley sees hemp as a way to rebuild a local trib­al econ­o­my and bring peo­ple back. I want a place for peo­ple to come home — to bring your knowl­edge back to your peo­ple rather than just leave it,” he says, refer­ring to the brain drain” and dias­po­ra many reser­va­tions face. I have two young sons… and I’m scared of what’s out there,” says Fin­ley. Hemp can change the world.”

Along with Young­Bear and Fin­ley, Rose­bud White Plume, Mar­cus Grignon and Way­lon Pre­tends Eagle have launched the Inter­trib­al Hemp Asso­ci­a­tion—a new orga­ni­za­tion intend­ed to edu­cate Native com­mu­ni­ties about hemp and work to cre­ate col­lab­o­ra­tions for the future of the trib­al hemp indus­try. For them, hemp is about heal­ing and social change, not money. 

YoungBear’s inter­est in hemp was piqued three years ago. Then an under­grad­u­ate stu­dent at Haskell Uni­ver­si­ty in Kansas, she began study­ing with the college’s indige­nous schol­ars. She read books with Michael Yel­low­bird and took food sov­er­eign­ty intern­ships that focused on decol­o­niz­ing food sys­tems with Dan Wild­cat. Among the plant’s 10,000 known uses, hemp, it turns out, is an excel­lent source of nutri­tion and amino acids. I want to feed the war­riors,” says YoungBear. 

Way­lon Pre­tends Eagle is from Man­da­ree, N.D., pop­u­la­tion 596, near the Ft. Berthold reser­va­tion — also known as the Man­dan, Hidat­sa and Arikara (MHA) Nation. The reser­va­tion is in the midst of a frack­ing boom: Oil roy­al­ties are paid out to some fam­i­lies on the reser­va­tion and trib­al cof­fers are filled with oil mon­ey. At the same time, ground water, plants and ani­mals are suf­fer­ing from the frack­ing process. My fam­i­ly actu­al­ly ben­e­fits finan­cial­ly from frack­ing,” says Pre­tends Eagle, but I’d like to push us all forward.” 

Pre­tends Eagle sees hemp as part of his own heal­ing as well. I want to heal myself by grow­ing good med­i­cine. I have some trau­ma from my child­hood and this is what I need,” he says.

The med­ical ben­e­fits of hemp come from, in part, the cannabi­noids con­tained with­in the plant. Over the cen­turies, these heal­ing prop­er­ties have been doc­u­ment­ed as treat­ing a wide vari­ety of human health con­di­tions. Can­nibid­i­ol, or CBD as it’s com­mon­ly known, is one of over 100 Cannabi­noids found in Cannabis sati­va L.—the bino­mi­al name of the hemp plant. Although CBD is a major med­i­c­i­nal con­stituent found in hemp’s many vari­eties, it should not be con­fused with tetrahy­dro­cannabi­nol (THC) — the one that gets you stoned.” Hemp and mar­i­jua­na come from the same cannabis species, but they are genet­i­cal­ly dis­tinct and the cul­ti­va­tion meth­ods are different.

Com­pared with THC, Cannabid­i­ol is not psy­choac­tive in healthy indi­vid­u­als and is con­sid­ered to have a wider scope of med­ical appli­ca­tions. These appli­ca­tions include, but are not lim­it­ed to, the treat­ment of epilep­sy, mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis spasms, anx­i­ety dis­or­ders, bipo­lar dis­or­der, schiz­o­phre­nia, nau­sea, con­vul­sion and inflam­ma­tion, and inhibit­ing the growth of can­cer cells. 

Hemp is also known to have prop­er­ties that biore­me­di­ate tox­ins in the soil and air (i.e. help clean up) and sequester car­bon — both of which could help address the envi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges tak­ing place on the Ft. Berthold Indi­an Reser­va­tion and else­where. As such, hemp is viewed by Pre­tends Eagle and oth­er trib­al lead­ers as a key in heal­ing not only peo­ple, but Moth­er Earth.

An inter­gen­er­a­tional commitment

Mar­cus Grignon, from the Menom­i­nee Tribe in Wis­con­sin, is the cam­paign man­ag­er for Hemp­stead Project Heart. Found­ed by the leg­endary philoso­pher and writer John Trudell (San­tee) and song­writer Willie Nel­son in 2012, the col­lab­o­ra­tion seeks to raise aware­ness regard­ing the ben­e­fits of hemp for both peo­ple and plan­et. Fol­low­ing Trudell’s death in 2015, Grignon pledged to car­ry on the organization’s work and con­tin­ues to advo­cate for the Menominee’s cul­ti­va­tion of hemp. 

Native Amer­i­can author, poet, actor, musi­cian and polit­i­cal activist, John Trudell. (Image: john​trudell​.com)

This work has not been easy. As recent­ly as 2015, the Menom­i­nee hemp crop was seized by the Drug Enforce­ment Agency (DEA). The right to grow hemp has been mired in bureau­crat­ic con­tro­ver­sy for decades but, thanks large­ly to the tire­less work of its advo­cates, atti­tudes in states across the coun­try are changing. 

Anoth­er leader of trib­al hemp’s Old Guard” is Rose­bud White Plume’s father, Alex, from Man­der­son and Wound­ed Knee Creek in South Dako­ta. For 16 years, from 2000 to 2016, he and oth­er trib­al mem­bers in the state fought to push the hemp indus­try for­ward. (His bat­tle to grow hemp on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indi­an Reser­va­tion is an epic sto­ry in its own right.) In short, although Pine Ridge and the Nava­jo Nation had passed ordi­nances to grow indus­tri­al hemp, trib­al crops con­tin­ued to be seized and the fed­er­al court barred the White Plume fam­i­ly from plant­i­ng hemp. 

In March 2016, how­ev­er, the U.S. Dis­trict Judge of South Dako­ta, Jef­frey L. Viken, lift­ed the injunc­tion that stopped White Plume from grow­ing hemp on his land by Wound­ed Knee Creek. He pro­duced his first crop again in 2017. Now, Rose­bud White Plume, Alex’s daugh­ter, has tak­en up much of the hemp work for the fam­i­ly. Like the oth­er young peo­ple in the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of this renais­sance, she looks for­ward to a brighter future thanks to the hemp rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies of the last decades. 

Though Trudell did not live to see the full renais­sance, his lega­cy is flour­ish­ing. In late 2017, the state of Wis­con­sin also legal­ized indus­tri­al hemp. And now that spring is com­ing to the North Coun­try, the Menom­i­nee, Onei­da and the St. Croix Band of Ojib­we all plan to grow this year. 

Unlike trib­al gam­bling, the eco­nom­ic boon hemp offers indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties includes health and envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fits. Wealth, after all, is more than mon­ey — it is well­be­ing. At a Native gath­er­ing at the NoCo Hemp Expo, Lavonne Peck, a for­mer trib­al chair­woman of the La Jol­la Band of Luiseño Indi­ans, spoke of the promis­ing role CBD is play­ing in assist­ing those suf­fer­ing from opi­oid addic­tion. It’s the future,” she says. Hemp is what the world needs. Hemp is the way.” 

Indeed, more men­tal health coun­selors are look­ing toward hemp as a part of a holis­tic treat­ment for addic­tions and trau­ma. Wear­ing an out­fit made entire­ly of hemp, Dionne Holmquist, the founder of Hemp Quest Ven­tures of Col­orado, also attend­ed the gath­er­ing. With a long career as a coun­selor, she says, I want­ed to do holis­tic heal­ing, not treat­ment. That’s what I learned as an addic­tion coun­selor. We were just treat­ing peo­ple and not heal­ing them.” Inspired by Alex White Plume, Holmquist’s expe­ri­ence moti­vat­ed her to do more and even­tu­al­ly led to her cur­rent role lead­ing mul­ti­ple hemp ini­tia­tives. She and her com­pa­ny will work with tribes to move their efforts forward. 

Hemp eco­nom­ics and big pharma

Trib­al and oth­er hemp grow­ers are (and must con­tin­ue) doing all they can to ensure that Big Phar­ma” does not con­trol the future of hemp. This is, after all, a med­i­cine you can grow in your yard. But there is undoubt­ed­ly mon­ey to be made.

Hemp Busi­ness Jour­nal esti­mates the total retail val­ue of all hemp prod­ucts sold in the Unit­ed States to be at least $688 mil­lion for 2016. The data demon­strates the hemp indus­try is grow­ing quick­ly and accord­ing to Sean Mur­phy, the Jour­nals founder and pub­lish­er, sales are pro­ject­ed to be near­ly $2 bil­lion by 2020. The surge is expect­ed to be led by hemp food, body care and CBD-based products.

(Source: Hemp Busi­ness Jour­nal)

One exam­ple of the pend­ing boom is the fact that phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­nies are con­tin­u­ing to devel­op inno­v­a­tive cannabi­noid based drugs. In the Unit­ed States, GW Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals (NAS­DAQ:GWPH) has received Orphan Drug Des­ig­na­tion from the FDA for its CBD-based drug Epid­i­olex. The drug will be used to treat a vari­ety of degen­er­a­tive and oth­er ill­ness­es includ­ing tuber­ous scle­ro­sis com­plex and infan­tile spasms — both severe infan­tile-onset, drug-resis­tant epilep­sy syndromes. 

Big phar­ma stands to prof­it well: Sales of Epid­i­olex are slat­ed to begin in 2018 or 2019, and are pro­ject­ed by Hemp Busi­ness Jour­nal to reach $120 mil­lion by 2020. If these fore­casts for Epid­i­olex prove accu­rate, sales of the drug will rep­re­sent near­ly 7 per­cent of total hemp indus­try sales by 2020 — an esti­mat­ed $1.8 bil­lion market. 

For those con­cerned about any new reg­u­la­tions that would lim­it trib­al and oth­er nation­al hemp mar­kets, most indus­try and legal ana­lysts are not wor­ried. That train has left the sta­tion,” says long­time envi­ron­men­tal and Native Amer­i­can advo­cate Don Wedll. Now in his third year of grow­ing hemp in Min­neso­ta, Wedll says, You can buy CBD’s at Wal­mart.” To fur­ther cement this sen­ti­ment, the Hemp Farm­ing Act of 2018 was intro­duced on April 12 by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R‑Ky). The leg­is­la­tion, which would amend the Agri­cul­tur­al Mar­ket­ing Act of 1946 to once again allow hemp pro­duc­tion, was quick­ly giv­en a sec­ond read­ing by the Sen­ate and is expect­ed to pass.

With tribes like the Anishi­naabe, Crow, Onei­da, Odawa, Menom­i­nee, Nava­jo and Oma­ha inter­est­ed in indus­tri­al hemp, it is clear that the renais­sance of hemp is now. This spring, a plant­i­ng in Native com­mu­ni­ties brings promise. With it, a new col­lab­o­ra­tion is grow­ing in indige­nous nations. Some tribes will grow, oth­ers will enact reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ty, and more tribes will come to the table in what promis­es to be an econ­o­my that can change many facets of our lives. 

The plant is here to stay.

Winona LaDuke is Anishi­naabe, a writer, an econ­o­mist and a hemp farmer, work­ing on a book about the Eighth Fire and the Green New Deal. She is ready for the Green Path, and would pre­fer not to spend her gold­en years clean­ing up the mess­es of enti­tled white men.LaDuke lives and works on the White Earth reser­va­tion in north­ern Min­neso­ta, where she found­ed the White Earth Land Recov­ery Project. She is pro­gram direc­tor of Hon­or the Earth and a two-time vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date with Ralph Nad­er on the Green Par­ty ticket.
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