Hemp production could be a sustainable economic future for indigenous communities, but barriers remain

A close up view of a hemp plant
AP Photo/Paul Sancya

At 6 a.m. on Aug. 24, 2000, Alex White Plume was woken up by a call from his brother. All he said was, “They arrived.” White Plume knew exactly who his brother meant. Walking outside, White Plume was ambushed by Drug Enforcement Administration agents holding submachine guns.

“[An agent] pointed his gun at me and said, ‘Halt,’ three times,” White Plume recalled in the 2006 PBS documentary “Standing Silent Nation.” “For a split second I had a little bit of fear, and then something inside me just got angry, just like a charge. I just looked at him and I’m not going to say what I said, but I said, ‘You’re going to have to shoot me in the back’ and I just started walking.”

The DEA raided White Plume’s property on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota over his decision to grow hemp, a class of cannabis that is used for medicinal and industrial purposes but lacks the high amounts of psychotropic THC found in marijuana. What could have been a cash crop for White Plume and his family was decimated by DEA agents during the raid.

White Plume’s story is illustrative of the way hemp has been regulated in the U.S. for decades–like a Class 1 drug–but it also represents the way indigenous people have been stymied in their attempt to use hemp as an economic driver for themselves and their communities.

Between agricultural legislation and the movement to legalize marijuana, hemp has become a more viable product for farmers, including indigenous farmers, in recent years. For indigenous communities, hemp production could provide an opportunity to build powerful, self-sustaining economies.

“Long before the Europeans were here, we were farming and doing it well,” says Tim Houseberg, co-founder and executive director of Cherokee Nation-based all indigenous nonprofit Native Health Matters. “Now, we’re mostly landless, so even when you get highly skilled farmers such as myself, we don’t have thousands of acres. We’re not a part of that agricultural network. That’s passed us by. I looked at [hemp] as an opportunity, in many cases, where people of indigenous backgrounds, diverse backgrounds, could all of a sudden participate in something to provide a living wage.”

The potential of hemp

Unlike marijuana, hemp has low THC levels–less than 0.5% compared to an average 15% in marijuana–high CBD levels and thousands of potential uses. Hemp is used in clothing, animal and human food, rope and some exciting new uses as well.

“I think there’s significant opportunity to be capitalized on and to innovate in,” says Jared Auclair, associate teaching professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern University. “There are some pretty interesting things that we could leverage hemp and cannabis in general for in some other areas like biofuels.”

For Houseberg, the potential of hemp production for tribal communities is more than just added income: it’s part of a path toward a sustainable, “circular” economy for indigenous people.

“You have people that could go and learn about emerging crops and create a career out of it or go lease land,” Houseberg says. “They could also participate in growing hemp and hemp production not for the fiber but for the seed and for nutritional value, to eat and stay alive.”

However, there are regulatory, economic and educational barriers that still present challenges for indigenous farmers looking to enter the hemp industry.

Hemp’s complicated history

Part of this has to do with hemp’s curious history as a crop in the U.S. Hemp has been grown by farmers for thousands of years all over the world, including in the U.S. In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, legally separating hemp from marijuana as a crop. Hemp production was encouraged by the government during the 1940s as part of agricultural efforts during World War II. However, hemp fell victim to the Drug War, starting in 1970 under the Controlled Substances Act, which criminalized hemp and classified it alongside heroin and marijuana as an abusable drug.

For tribal communities, the question of sovereignty still hangs over all of this, especially given recent efforts to chip away at it. The Oglala Lakota on Pine Ridge, like all tribes in the U.S., were given sovereignty on their land and, in 1998, the tribe passed an ordinance legalizing the cultivation of hemp on Pine Ridge Reservation.

“I told [the DEA agents], ‘You’re violating the tribal law,’” White Plume said in “Standing Silent Nation. “’This is our family’s land. … You’re violating us and you’re taking something that we planted and we’re going to sell that.’”

With the 2014 Farm Bill, states could operate pilot programs regulating hemp production for research purposes, which meant educational institutions and their partners could jump into the industry. The 2018 Farm Bill went further, authorizing the broad production of hemp, as long as it is made legal by states or tribes, and removing it from the DEA’s list of controlled substances.

However, these recent changes haven’t made things much easier for indigenous farmers, Houseberg says.

Barriers to success

His Oklahoma-based nonprofit Native Health Matters has been ahead of the curve in the world of hemp production in general. In 2018, the nonprofit partnered with the University of Arkansas on the first university-backed agronomic study of hemp in the U.S. It has an expansive genetic library of hemp varieties from around the world. But even with all those advantages, Native Health Matters has faced challenges in the world of hemp production.

Most tribal communities just don’t have the knowledge of where or how to grow and harvest hemp or who to talk to, which can leave them susceptible to “unscrupulous promoters,” Houseberg says. For people already facing steep economic challenges, the difference between a successful or failed deal with a promoter is significant.

“Like any emerging business there are good and bad people in it. There are people there just to take advantage, so in a tribal community, where you have young, new businesses, they can’t take ‘I just spent $10,000 buying the wrong seed,’” Houseberg says. “They may be done, period. They couldn’t survive contracts that are more one-sided than two-sided. There is just a lot of lack of knowledge of who to do business with.”

Equipment and land are also expensive, and due to the federal government’s history of removing indigenous people from their land, tribal communities have very little acreage to work with in the first place. Then there are the droughts, pests and fertilizer shortages that present additional hurdles. Houseberg started growing hemp under the 2014 Farm Bill, but he saw farmers who weren’t so lucky. Some lost their farms, went to jail or even committed suicide.

“If you see an American Indian farmer period, take a picture because it’s rare,” Houseberg says. “It’s tough for the farmer in the United States period, let alone an American Indian farmer, let alone one who’s decided they’re going to try to grow hemp.”

There are also regulatory barriers, which can vary from state to state, says Paul Pei, an assistant teaching professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at Northeastern.

“Fifteen days prior to the harvest if the THC content of the plant is above a certain level, you have to completely destroy the piece of land,” Pei says. “All the money is gone.”

Looking to the future

But there are some signs of hope. After 20 years of a court order preventing him from growing hemp, White Plume recently partnered with Minnesota-based hemp cooperate Evo Hemp in 2017 to create a line of hemp food products. Even if it takes time, Houseberg maintains optimism that this kind of agricultural development can be a boon for tribal communities.

“There are opportunities for indigenous communities that aren’t in the cities just because we were, we are, a plant-based society, although we’ve gotten away from it,” Houseberg says. “Getting back to those things, starting with the little ones, is an opportunity to create workforces in emerging areas, but it’s what we’ve forgotten. It’s a chance for us to get back to those things and join this new economy.”

To help provide avenues for success, Native Health Matters created the Indigenous Production Trade Alliance, a group of farmers, universities, seed breeders and entrepreneurs who aim to educate and build workforce in the hemp industry and world of sustainable agriculture. Native Health Matters is also working with other tribal communities and organizations on remediation efforts as well, improving soil to help grow hemp and other crops. All of these efforts have to start at the community level, Houseberg says, otherwise the benefits of hemp production won’t stay in or work for the community.

But that doesn’t mean that indigenous farmers have to figure this out on their own. Houseberg says a group like the Indigenous Production Trade Alliance is proof that collaboration is key to success in the hemp industry.

“Like cannabinoids, companies [and] individuals should begin working together to create unique links in the world supply chain to make untold impacts for the environment,” Houseberg says. “An energy conservation ecosystem in health [and] wellness is a collaboration, not unlike the symbiotic effects of the cannabis plant, which has been coined the entourage effect. With such a diversity of useful innovations, hemp companies, just as the compounds in cannabis do, and the synergistic alliances of businesses [can] create a Hempire like the world has never seen.”

Although Houseberg has spent a decade exploring the potential for hemp in tribal communities, he is adamant that hemp on its own is not a panacea. But it is one way to embrace a sustainable future that could prove fruitful for indigenous people across the U.S.

“Everyone thinks that hemp’s going to save the world. Well, it’s not––it can only do its part,” Houseberg says. “It’s us working to create more of a plant-based ecological environment that’s going to change things.”

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