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NoCo9 Speaker Spotlight Series: Mary Jane Oatman, executive director of the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association

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NoCo9 Speaker Spotlight Series: Mary Jane Oatman, executive director of the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association

Mary Jane Oatman, executive director of the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association and publisher/editor of Tribal Hemp and Cannabis magazine, spoke to Let’s Talk Hemp from the ancestral homelands of her people on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho.

Tell us about the Indigenous Cannabis Industry Association (ICIA)
It is a 501(c)6 and we focus on networking and mentorship, education and advocacy to advance the opportunities for Native American tribes to add hemp and cannabis farming and businesses to their portfolios. 

We believe the best way to accomplish our goals is through partnerships. Business planning for hemp development is difficult for tribal communities to execute, so we align with other groups like Global Hemp Association and U.S. Hemp Roundtable, among others, who provide these services. 

Negative stigma is still a huge issue in the emerging industry. People are sitting on the fence waiting for others to move forward. We are excited to show tribal communities successful processing facilities.

Our president, Rob Pero, is working with Iconoclast Industries on a Climate Smart Commodities grant through USDA. They will receive up to $15 million for a research and data project on hemp. It is important for a tribal innovator to be a part of the program. The list of major partners for the project is robust and includes Global Hemp Association, Florida Department of Ag, Canndigenous and Minorities for Medical Marijuana. 

An early success indicator of ICIA is that we can convene and hold tribally led and driven conversations. They are complex and difficult, but we need to have them be part of making the agenda. We need to make sure that our rights are protected. We need recognition that this plant has been used since the beginning of time for our people. Somehow the war on drugs attempted to erase the healing, homebuilding and food practices that Indigenous cultures have been using since time immemorial. We want to make sure the new economy is part of our tribal economy.

How did you become interested in hemp and how did your background get you here?
I’ve been a cannabis user since I was in utero. My mother used cannabis full term with all of her pregnancies and my brother and sister and I are all productive, happy members of society. I was raised in cannabis culture with a strong respect that this is a medicine. 

My grandmother went to prison for cannabis when I was a little girl. It’s still on her bucket list to grow a nice big, beautiful cannabis plant here in Idaho! I was in school during the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) era and here is McGruff the Crime Dog doing his presentation and everyone at school knew what happened. A powerline worker reported plants he saw on our family property. It was a big DEA raid. I recall the use of force and the fear that came after. Both grandparents went to prison for a year.

It impacted me early on in my career. I had been a medical cannabis user since I was 16 because it helped me academically and with my anxiety. When I turned 21, I got a job as a federal law enforcement officer. I faced the challenge of sneaking pee into a test. I carried pee with me in fear of a random drug test and worried my medicinal cannabis use would be exposed and explode my employment. When I changed course and went to college, I said never again will I pee in a cup to participate in commerce and the economy. I will not sacrifice my personal sovereignty for employment.

I was upset in 2014 that tribes were left out of the Farm Bill for hemp farming. I began to do education research and advocacy. In 2018 we succeeded in ensuring tribal provisions were in the new Farm Bill. These opportunities became everything for me. 

Tell us about the Indigenous Cannabis Coalition that you founded
This one is a 501(c)3 for education and advocacy that I founded in 2019. I produce a tribal hemp magazine, which is the first print publication dedicated to tribal hemp and cannabis. 

I was attending large trade shows and there were no tribal brands or policy workers. I felt alone. A big part of it was collecting data on what tribes are doing and where. I decided to start the proprietary map of every single tribe-owned cannabis enterprise. We have also held two successful policy summits. 

What do you have planned for 2023? 
I am planning a documentary so we can showcase tribes such as Prairie Band. They are emerging as a fiber leader. The Iowa tribe of Kansas and Nebraska are doing everything from hemp cigarettes to hempcrete and working with partners to commercialize to scale. 

ICIA is working on health and economic data to be a clearinghouse for information to share. We are creating a platform of trusted and vetted data and research policy for external partnership. We are only as strong as our membership. We are growing at a healthy rate and need more tribes to bring their governments into the fold. It’s a brave entrepreneur who holds a listening session and gets more people engaged and involved. Then the elected tribal leaders realize they need to be at the table.

We plan to hold more town halls where we display hemp rope, fabric and building materials. We need to show them (tribal elders) this is not wacky tobacky. Members are empowered through the ICIA network to make the change. 

What will you talk about at NoCo9?
The biggest highlights will be forecasting what is happening with tribes that are working on economies of scale for hemp production. It’s really exciting to see tribal partnerships start to percolate in the industrial space. Some of the tribes will be there to share their stories. The biggest insights are aligning what the tribes are doing with the USDA and Department of Energy funding opportunities and sharing how our network and partnerships are helping to provide technical assistance and support services for Indigenous communities. 

What about your name, Mary Jane? 
People will joke and ask if it’s really on my birth certificate or if it is a stage name for my work. It just happens to be a family name! My great-grandmother was Jane Mary. My grandmother flipped it around and I was named for my aunt Mary Jane.

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