Albert White Plume has lived all his life on the desperately poor Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Pine Ridge Reservation in remote southwestern South Dakota. Eager to find innovative ways to improve the local economy, he jumped at the chance to grow industrial hemp after the Oglala Tribal Council okayed the crop in 1998.
His first efforts failed, but this year White Plume was rewarded with a bumper crop, some 40,000 to 50,000 hemp plants as much as 20 feet tall waving in the perpetual wind that blows across the Northern Plains.
Harvest time should have been a time of pride and celebration. "We had a ceremony planned to honor the hemp before we harvested it. We believe we must honor the spirits of all living things we kill, and we had modified one of our rituals for the occasion," the soft-spoken White Plume told DRCNet.
"But now, all we have is a big heartache."
On the morning of August 24th, White Plume's crop was destroyed in a paramilitary operation by federal and state law enforcement officials. At least 25 body armor-wearing, automatic weapons-toting officers from the DEA, FBI, US Marshals Service, and the Northern Plains Safe Trails Task Force carrying automatic weapons arrived just after dawn in a caravan of 12 vehicles, accompanied by a helicopter and two airplanes.
"We heard the helicopters, and then my little brother drove up and said they're coming," said White Plume. "My little brother was ready to put up a fight, because we've grown attached to the plants -- it's a family thing, even the grandkids are involved -- but I told him we can't resist, we have to fight it in court."
"I verbally asked them to stop cutting down the plants, but they said 'no, this is a DEA matter and we're going to seize all this marijuana you've got here.'"
White Plume chuckled wistfully. "I'm no educated guy, but even I can tell the difference between hemp and marijuana."
"Some kids stole one of the plants to try to get high," he noted, then laughed and added, "I bet they won't be smoking any more hemp plants."
White Plume was dismayed by the display of armed might, especially since he and the Slim Buttes Land Use Association, which had spearheaded the hemp effort, had taken pains to let authorities know exactly what they were doing.
"I can't understand why they needed to do this to us," he said. "We've been really open and up front with them, we even invited them to come see it. We were following all the tribal ordinances. I could have hid it, but we weren't doing anything illegal. They scared our young people."
Still, the raid was not a complete surprise. When tribal officials passed the hemp ordinance in 1998, the DEA threatened to prosecute anyone growing without a DEA Certificate of Registration. And although White Plume had invited a Bureau of Indian Affairs investigator to visit the field in June and take samples for THC testing -- the tests came back negative -- the US Attorney's office had threatened to act if a crop came to harvest.
Indeed, some of the raiders even admitted to White Plume that they had tested the plants and found less than 1% THC, prompting him to ask why they were seizing the plants if they knew they weren't drugs.
"They told me it was to deter other Lakota from doing what I was doing," White Plume told the Lakota Nation Journal, "and because they wouldn't differentiate between hemp and marijuana."
In a press release the day of the raid, the US Attorney for South Dakota, Tom McBride, held to the DEA line on hemp. "The growing of any marijuana plant is illegal unless the DEA issues a permit after enforcing appropriate safeguards against the misuse of the plants," said the statement.
Despite the US Attorney's hard line, police did not bother to arrest White Plume, even though he faced a potential 10-year to life sentence. "They told me they didn't want to get into a political controversy," Plume told DRCNet.
But the feds may not be able to avoid that, especially because they have positioned themselves, intentionally or not, so that they face a direct conflict with the Oglala Sioux Nation over issues of tribal sovereignty.
During the 1998 debate over the ordinance, Joe American Horse, a spokesman for the land use association, told the tribal council, "Sovereignty over our own land and scientific language regarding the hemp plant are the issues involved."
In passing the ordinance, the tribal council emphasized its position that treaties signed by the Oglala Nation and the US government give the tribe the right to control food and fiber crop production on tribal lands.
With elections for the tribal council scheduled for later this month, the council has not yet responded to the August 24th raid. A tribal spokeswoman told DRCNet any response would come after the elections.
Despite the raid, White Plume and fellow members of the land use association remain committed to the cause and cheered by the support they have garnered. Green Party vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke issued a lengthy statement denouncing the raid (http://www.votenader.com/press/000905oglala.html) and calling it "a violation of Oglala Lakota sovereignty, and an affront to genuine efforts at tribal self-sufficiency in the face of daunting economic odds."
And, says White Plume, "We're not going to stop. We think what we're doing can save the earth, so we're not going to give up."
As for the DEA, White Plume is not too impressed. "We need to cut their budget by 95%. They don't do anything but cut down ditch weed."
South Dakota Rep. Ron Volesky (D-Huron) thinks federal officials have taken the wrong tack regarding White Plume and hemp on the reservation. "I think they ought to just leave them alone," said Volesky.
"I'd like to see hemp available," he told DRCNet. "We had a hemp bill last year, but it failed. I think it will be reintroduced and I will support it," the lawmaker said.
Volesky told DRCNet he will also introduce a medical marijuana bill in the next legislative session. "People who suffer from certain ailments could benefit greatly from marijuana, and I'm committed to moving forward on this."
As an elected official in a socially conservative state, Volesky was careful to emphasize that "this is an opportunity to help sick people, not a way to decriminalize marijuana."
"I want to be clear that medical marijuana use must be closely regulated, and my bill provides for that," he said.
The bill, which was drafted by the South Dakota Legislative Research Council at Volesky's request, is in some ways less restrictive than similar bills in other states. It sets no limits on the amount of marijuana or number of plants a medical marijuana patient or caregiver may possess.
In other ways, however, it is more restrictive. The bill as written enumerates the eligible medical conditions and limits them to glaucoma and symptoms of chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
When pressed on the bill's prospects, Volesky was guardedly optimistic. "It might actually pass," he said. "It has significant bipartisan support. In terms of public response, well, I haven't received any letters saying I'm crazy or kooky, but I have received a number in favor of the bill."
"If they can do it in Hawaii," Volesky argued, "I don't see why we can't do it here."