A former President and leader of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Alex White Plume’s historic decades-long fight to grow hemp is as deeply rooted in spiritual tradition as it is in economic development goals for his people.
By Elaine Lipson
Seeking to build a business on the Pine Ridge Reservation where he was born, Alex White Plume planted hemp on his family land in the year 2000 — a legal act under Oglala Sioux Tribe sovereignty. But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) saw it differently. They raided his field, cut his crop, and banned his work. Media attention and even a documentary, Standing Silent Nation, brought national attention. But while the DEA ban on White Plume’s crop ended in 2016, White Plume’s dream of creating a viable hemp farm and industry on tribal land, creating greatly needed jobs, is not yet fully realized.
In mourning after the 2020 death of his wife, renowned activist Debra White Plume, White Plume chose not to plant hemp this year as part of his grieving. Still, hemp remains central to his life and to his nine children and 17 grandchildren. White Plume’s legal battles and hemp activism led him to study history and learn more about the deep injustices that brought the DEA as aggressors to his land and that circled his life as an Oyuhkpe Oglala Lakota man. At the same time, White Plume still has a vision of a world where growing hemp is simple and profitable for himself and his people, beneficial and beautiful for the planet, and respectful of his ancestral traditions.
In this week of celebrating indigenous peoples, Let’s Talk Hemp is honored to share some of our wide-ranging conversation with Alex White Plume about hemp in his past, present, and future. We invite you to read his words and take them to heart.
Note: This conversation has been edited for length.
Alex, you’ve been fighting your whole life to grow hemp and to be able to make a living with hemp on your land. Things are starting to change. How do you feel about these changes?
I remember back whenever we first started talking about hemp in ’96, ’97, ’98 there were a lot of people, scientists, who wrote about hemp and how it used to be, before the Controlled Substances Act. I was just living here. There are something like 15,000 able-bodied people for employment but only 3,000 jobs on the reservation. I decided that maybe we should grow hemp, and I talked it over with the family and all agreed. At the same time there was a group of people working with Tom Cook in Chadron, Nebraska, planting hemp.
So we went in it together. I went in it for a cash crop, to make money and help the whole family out. I read our treaties that the United States approved and passed, that have never been changed, that said we could create our own fiber. And then I read the Controlled Substances Act and way towards the back there’s a part called “Indians.” It said any member of any Indian tribe wanting to grow marijuana, they call the DEA and they shall issue a permit. The tribal council saw a good thing, so they separated hemp from marijuana and everything was in our favor.
So the next thing was to get seeds, to get seeds to plant to have a harvest, and that was very difficult back in ’98 and ’99 … in my mind I had visions of us creating a textile industry, creating soft fibers for our clothing. My family, all my sisters, they do design work, they design shirts, dresses, they have beadwork. We had to overcome many obstacles because whenever the tribal people do something in America they call it “arts and crafts.” Well, that cheapens the whole thing. It’s called artifacts.
And another one was, most of my elders were trained by the United States government that marijuana was this evil demon drug that was gonna jump out and we had to overcome that obstacle as well. I explained to them that marijuana in Lakota is called wahupta ska pejuta or the White Root medicine. That’s what it is. That’s the description of what white man calls marijuana and as the people were thinking about it, they realized, yeah, hemp is not a drug.
It’s real difficult to get ahead because in the hemp world today, corporations came into our world, and there’s a lot of competition. Everything is being patented, and you can’t use this thing, you can’t use that guy’s thing, it sort of became real capitalist. And I’m not used to that. I think if this plant was here, it should be available for anyone who wants to create some type of a natural fiber that won’t be bad for the earth or the environment.
A lot of young people want to get into this, they want to start farming, they want to create products, but they don’t know the history. What do you want them to know?
I would like them to all design some type of venture that they want, and plant enough hemp to supply themselves. Everybody’s in the market to become instant millionaires overnight, so they plant a huge acreage and try to sell it … So I encourage everyone, start your venture and grow your own hemp to supply your own self. And then come out with a finished final product and that’s when you can market it and maybe generate enough income to live a good life.
I’ve been doing this all my life and I’m still at ground level one. My grandchildren are gonna pick up on it …. I’m trying to get something here, where you could get hemp hurds to build a house. In 1987 I built the first hemp house in America and everybody was just in awe of it. It cost a lot of money to implement the hurds in from Germany, and when I had enough hemp here to do it myself it was still illegal, so it was from that time to today.
I think we have a clear picture on what we want to do as tribes. Today I’m happy to announce that the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate planted 40 acres and they have a beautiful story to go along with it. And that this last year Rosebud Sioux Tribe planted 125 acres, and Navajo Nation is using hemp to make the blankets and the rugs … they’re on to something really good down there, I’m just proud of them, and hemp is just all around me and I’m just sitting here in awe and happy.
I’m 90 miles from the closest rail and 90 miles from the closest interstate. It’s difficult for me to create economic development here, just transporting it to a point where we could ship it out. I have to create something here and build a final product here.
What do you think of what’s going on in Washington around hemp legislation?
I think what happened in the last ten years is really terrible. People so overwhelmingly wanted to legalize hemp that cannabis sativa L. became so over-regulated that it’s very difficult to get into the business of growing hemp, selling it, creating a product … it’s gonna chase a lot of people away. And unless you have a business manager and five lawyers in your corporation, then it’s difficult for the common man to follow those regulations that are established today. I don’t like it.
The tribes read the laws in California and Colorado, and then over-regulated hemp to the point where it’s almost impossible to start a business. They just wanted to do good for their people by saying they legalized it, but they over-regulated it so much that I’m just amazed, and I’m wondering, did I wake up into another world?
The way I wanted it, you go into some economic development office at your tribal headquarters, and you fill out a little application saying I’m gonna grow hemp on my land, and I’ll make you a report when I harvest, and in ten minutes you should walk out of there with a permit. Make the rules simple. But it turned out it’s so regulated that it takes a while to get approval for a permit. I think it needs to change. The authority, the sovereignty lies with us.
But as long as I’ve been alive — I’ve been in elected office, I was a vice-president, I was a president, I was a councilman, I served in many high-powered executive positions for my tribe — and the way we live today, government policy regulates every part of my life. There’s got to be a time when we become free.
Hemp really opened my eyes to see what’s visually happening in this world, and I just want someday to be at peace with myself and at peace with everybody, and I want us to use hemp in all its forms. I’m building another hemp house here on my land as a memorial for my wife. It’s gonna be like an interpretation center [about] 16 Nonviolent Direct Actions. My wife started that, coined that phrase, because here on the Pine Ridge we had Wounded Knee Two in 1973, and that was a real violent era in our lives. And then in 1986 we started ceremonies to bring back our grieving rituals, bring back our normal everyday lives, and then the Nonviolent Direct Actions started from there, because in America the tribal people are invisible. We don’t have a voice. Nobody hears us.
So anyway, this is part of our history. And what I want to do is, like I said, ask the tribes to rescind their actions on regulating hemp, to make it a real simple form, and maybe those regulations, they could just separate those as guides, not law. And allow us to get a seed planted.
What I’m hearing is that you haven’t mellowed with age, you’re still fighting and you’re still optimistic and idealistic about hemp. Is that fair to say?
I would still like to retire with a little bit of money in my bank from hemp. When I first started in 1986, up to 1997, I used to have 100 head of buffalo, 50 head of paint horses, I had a beautiful ranch. And once I got into hemp there was no way I could turn around. Today I lost everything because of legal problems and the overall cost of it. … I sacrificed everything just to prove that the plant was normal and safe, and so that’s my goal, that’s my goal in life and I’m teaching my grandchildren and my sons all to be involved in a new way to use hemp, and what other uses can we find from hemp.
Maybe there’s some ancient ways that they used hemp, and to make the colors, just like the Navajos do. We all gotta trace back our history. Because if you don’t know your roots, you’re confused in life. We gotta all know our roots.
Alex, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want people to say about you and hemp in the end?
I think I want people to know me as a dad, a good dad, a good grandfather. I’m the leader of my family, and that we used hemp to create our form of life here so we won’t be destroying the earth. And that’s all I want in life. I want to be just a common man. In my culture, us men, we strive all our lives to become a common man, and what it means is you’ve done everything, you’re a leader. You can sit down and meet with a Congressman, you can sit with the President of the United States, you’ve done everything so you’re a common man now. And that’s what I want to be known as. In the white man’s way, a common man means somebody that’s dumb, ignorant, and poor. Lakotas are totally different. They [the meanings] conflict with each other. So I want them to know me as a common man in the Lakota way.
Can women do this? Can I be a common woman if I live right?
Oh, no way, man! Women are the most complicated things in the whole world. They’re matriarchs. And matriarchs are the ones, the keepers of the culture, keepers of the law. They’re generation builders. They’re really complex and complicated. Without the women, we wouldn’t be here today. We have to honor and respect and totally love our women. The whole world has to get away from patriarchy and give women more respect.
What else would you like to say about hemp?
I think hemp has been researched now and used, and like I said we want to deregulate it so it becomes a real simple, non-narcotic-use plant like corn and potatoes, and when we’ve done that then we’ve won, and we can all start utilizing hemp in our own manner, our own way. Testing for hemp should not be too expensive. The earth is drying out from the bottom up, and we have to preserve her and we have to protect her so we all have to look at ways to regenerate the land. And I think hemp is a true contender for that purpose.
Do you farm organically?
I don’t know what that word means, but we don’t allow chemicals on our land. We have a natural [substance in the soil] on the reservation called zeolite, kind of like a conditioner for the earth, it makes everything grow super good. So I don’t use the word organic, I think that if you don’t use chemicals and pesticides I think you’ll be doing good.
What can newcomers to hemp can do to honor the work you’ve done?
The only thing I ask people to always do is to look at the history of America. Hemp was here at the very beginning. We call it wahupta ska pejuta. So we’ve had it. Not only hemp, but other plants that we always utilized. But they make us out to be like cavemen, we’re dumb, ignorant, we’re poor, childlike. That’s not so. We were really sophisticated. We knew how to live on the earth … Here we’re seeing the same actions that happened a couple thousand years ago repeating itself today, where they destroy the water, they destroy the air, they destroy the dirt, they destroy the plants, and this is not a good thing. So I’d like to ask everybody just to be conscious of it, and not put a title on it, just do what you have to do to not harm Mother Earth. Leave a good footprint on the earth.
How can people support the Pine Ridge Reservation?
I think I would like to see some real honest investors who want to come here to help, not come to make money. We need some oil presses, some extracting machines. If we had an extractor to serve the Midwest Plains region it would be something simple for us to do so we can take our plants to be extracted into medicine and hurds. Just to invest in a friendly way — that would be a good thing. We don’t want nothing free, we don’t want a handout, everything is earned, we want to earn. It would be a good thing to meet those kinds of people. And [spend] just a few minutes researching the history, that would be amazing.
# # #
- White Plume Hemp Company: the website of the White Plume family hemp business.
- Learn more about White Plume Hemp in this 2017 article from Indian Country Today.
- Watch a clip from the documentary Standing Silent Nation.
- Read Winona LaDuke’s “Hemp and the New Green Revolution” about a recent gathering with Winona, Alex, and Native farmers.
- Learn about the Anishinaabe Agricultural Institute, founded by Winona LaDuke, and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance.
- This interview took place by phone from Boulder, Colorado, ancestral home of the Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho peoples. To learn more about the Native peoples of your location, visit native-land.ca.
Elaine Lipson is a Colorado-based writer and editor. She wrote The International Market for Sustainable Apparel, the first comprehensive market view of the sustainable apparel industry, in 2008, and Slow Cloth: An Alternative to the Politics of Production. Elaine was previously senior programming manager and acquisitions/content editor for Bluprint, an NBCUniversal company, and organic program director for New Hope Natural Media.