An estimated 50 to 70 hardy hempsters from the US and Canada made their way to one of the most remote spots in the country on August 20-23 to attend the annual Hemp Industries Association convention (http://www.hempindustries.org) and to pay homage Alex White Plume and family, Lakota Indians who last year managed to grow, harvest, and sell the nation's first hemp harvest since the hoary days of "Grow Hemp for Victory." White Plume lives on the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, a stark, austere landscape of parched hills and looming Badlands just east of the sacred Paha Sapa Mountains, known as the Black Hills since white men found gold there and stole them by force of arms five generations ago.
The Pine Ridge is also a place where memories of the past refuse to die and notions of the sovereignty of the Lakota Nation, guaranteed by treaty with the US government, stay strong. The Lakota claim the sovereign right to control what they grow on their land -- thus, the tribal council's endorsement of White Plume's hemp growing and affirmation of his right to do so in 1998. The question of Lakota sovereignty also explains the unusual delicacy with which the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) responded. White Plume's crops grew until harvest time in 2000 and 2001, then DEA-led SWAT-style squads swept in and destroyed the crops. But they did not arrest White Plume or other family members involved in cultivating the crop.
Last year, White Plume outsmarted the raiders by harvesting early and quickly selling his crop. This time, the Justice Department responded not with an arrest, but with a civil injunction barring him from growing more. This year, White Plume did not plant for fear of being jailed for contempt, nor has he set foot in his field, but the hemp is there anyway.
"The hemp is fighting to live, it's ready to go," White Plume told DRCNet. "How can they ban a plant? It is so sad that people could do that to a helpless plant. They try to act like God. In Lakota it is not like that. You are supposed to live with all that is around you. We don't know how a harmless, beautiful, useful plant is illegal." White Plume laughed wryly. "It don't make sense in Lakota language. We think white man's ways are crazy ways."
This is the man people traveled great distances to see. (You know you're a long way from anywhere when people ask you where it is and you have to tell them "about 70 miles north of Chadron, Nebraska.") But White Plume and the clan he heads are not the only ones involved with hemp on the Pine Ridge, nor his field the only project. The first full day of the gathering began with attendees clambering out of the 15-foot-tall tepees on White Plume's Kizaa Park property in which they bedded down for the duration, forming a caravan, and driving 50 miles across reservation roads to the Pine Ridge hemp house. There, alone on an open, rolling plain belonging to the Slim Buttes Landowners Association, stands a not-quite-finished wood-frame house whose walls are constructed of hemp-cement bales similar to straw bale construction. The roofing shingles are made of a composite of recycled milk cartons and hemp fiber. The stucco exteriors also use hemp, as fiber to replace the more common nylon fibers.
The house was built under the supervision of Tom Cook, another Lakota who lives off the reservation near Chadron and who is head of the High Plains Development Corporation. "We decided to build by holding a meeting with the elders -- Alex is the elder for his family," he told those gathered around. "We had drums beating -- it was Lakota protocol, not exactly Roberts Rules of Order," he laughed. "We want the hemp for sustainable development and low-cost housing here," he added. "We try to use local resources. We can make frames from the stands of pines we have on the reservation, we have our own sawmill, and we could use hemp grown here to build those houses more cheaply."
But the US government will not allow that, and that explains why the hemp house is unfinished. "That house will cost $160,000 because we had to pay for the hemp to be imported from Canada instead of being able to grow it ourselves," said White Plume. "Indians don't have that kind of money. If we could have used our own crop, the house would cost $60,000."
And now the Canadians are nervous, given the Ashcroft Justice Department's dogged and dogmatic opposition to the hemp trade. "I tell them to just ship it to me, but the Canadians are afraid," said Cook. "We need to find someone brave enough to ship it. I may have someone on the White Earth (North Dakota) Reservation buy it -- that rez straddles the border -- and then I'll trade some horses for it. It'll be the underground hemp railroad," he proclaimed.
If the Canadians are nervous, they were also interested. In stark contrast to the attitude of the US government, the Canadian government actually seeks to promote industrial hemp as a viable industry, so while the last time a US government representative visited White Plume was to seize his crop at gunpoint, the Canadian government's representative, an employee of Agriculture Canada, came to see how to expand an industry throttled by a prohibitionist neighbor.
"My job is to help promote the Canadian hemp industry," said Ag Canada's Charles Tromblay, who traveled from Ottawa for the conference. "I am hear to see what the Americans are up to, to touch base, and to look at ideas for product development," he told DRCNet. Ag Canada has also ponied up money to get a hemp trade association, the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance (http://www.hemptrade.ca) off the ground, including getting alliance director Arthur Hanks, of Winnipeg, to the Pine Ridge.
"I am here to see what we can do to develop the hemp sector in Canada," Hanks told DRCNet. "The US is a big market and our natural trading partner. We have a population of 30 million, while you have 300 million. We want that market of 330 million, not 30 million," he said. "While we still have room to grow within the Canadian market, not having clear access to the US market does hurt the industry." The regulatory hurdles imposed by the US government must be overcome by hemp advocates on both sides of the border working together, Hanks said. "Canada is the test chamber. If we are successful in Canada, you will see a hemp industry develop in the US. On the other hand, if we don't develop the industry enough in Canada, there will be no economic argument for hemp in the States," he explained. "Americans have to be conscious of this and support the Canadian hemp industry, and we have to work with the Americans to improve the regulatory position of hemp."
And the trip was worth the trek, Hanks said, a view that seemed to represent a consensus opinion. "What the White Plumes and Tom Cook are doing is really impressive. They're about homes for people, they're about integrity, not commercialization," Hanks said. "It was really positive being there and really nice to see all the hemp people. The Americans seem to have high morale, which is great."
"It was awesome," concurred David Bronner, chair of the HIA's Food & Oil Committee and head of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps. "It was important for the industry to show respect and appreciation for what Alex has been doing for a number of years now," he told DRCNet. "He's the only person in America growing hemp. It's been a real inspiration. This was a unique opportunity to see what's going on out here. And what is happening is amazing on so many levels, like the sovereignty. We're all into asserting our freedom, and they have such a strong claim to do this."
As for White Plume, he was glad for the support -- and the company. "I know it's a long way out here, and I thank those who came to visit. I was really impressed with all the different networks advocating for hemp," he said. "This boosted our morale here. We're going to start a hemp-paper factory in November. And last year, I traded a horse for an irrigation pump for the hemp field. I still want to use it."
And White Plume was ready to stand up for what he called the Standing Silent Nation, those who don't raise their voices. "Now I know I'm not alone, so I can act tougher with the feds," he laughed.
Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/151/ for DRCNet's article reporting on the destruction of White Plume's hemp field three years ago, and David Borden's editorial about it, "Hemp Lunacy" -- which may contain the only known Monty Python reference in drug reform -- White Plume was right when he said that "white men's ways are crazy ways" -- at least when it comes to hemp! Also of interest, our April interview with David Bronner (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/283/davidbronner.shtml).