Native American talks hemp regulation and genocide

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BRATTLEBORO — Alex White Plume was nervous when he started planting hemp seeds in 2000. His children had come up with the idea. "They're well educated," he said.

White Plume visited Vermont Hempicurean on Saturday to share stories about his fight with the Drug Enforcement Agency to grow hemp, and to talk about Oglala Lakota-U.S. relations.

White Plume had been looking for a new crop to farm. Corn, he said, was out of the question because it's difficult to find seeds that aren't genetically modified and don't come from Monsanto, a controversial agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation. Hemp, however, can be sold to companies to make fibers, textiles, biodegradable plastics, food, biofuel and more.

Hemp is a strain of cannabis with lower levels of THC and higher levels of cannabidiol which counteracts its psychoactive effects and has medicinal properties.

In 2014, a law known as the "Farm Bill" was passed that allows the sale and research of industrial hemp in states where it's legal. Regardless of the legality of growing hemp at the federal level, White Plume said he was in good legal standing to do it back in 2000.

White Plume lives on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The reservation is considered its own nation under the Treaty of Fort Laramie, made in 1868. The U.S. federal government isn't supposed to interfere with reservations unless someone has violated a major crime, such as murder, kidnapping, sexual abuse, felony child abuse or neglect, arson, or larceny.

Despite the Farm Bill and the sale of hemp and CBD across the U.S., the Drug Enforcement Agency has been scrutinizing hemp as heavily as it would other forms of cannabis under the Controlled Substances Act, according to White Plume.

The autumn of his first harvest season, the DEA came and took all of his crops. When they raided him they knocked seeds off the stocks, essentially planting his next season's crops, he joked. After the first raid, White Plume fought with the federal government for 20 years. In 2017 he was finally left alone to grow hemp.

The saga with the DEA, White Plume said, relates directly to the genocide of native American peoples.

"On the East Coast here there's no more natural Indians. They were wiped out because they have 511 years [of colonization]." Local Native Americans have had their cultures wiped out, White Plume said.

"We've only had 200 years of contact so we're still real," he said of the Lakota. "Our language is real, our ceremonies are real. We're still alive; we still remember."

Part of why White Plume was in Brattleboro Saturday was to talk to the town about his experience as a Lakota person. He was sponsored by Brattleboro Common Sense, a local grassroots organization that recently debuted a campaign to ask for reparations for local indigenous groups. White Plume and Middle Eastern Scholar Norman Finkelstein led a discussion about the similarities between the treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and Native Americans.

"The United States helps Israel so much because they [Jewish people] used to be in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, but we don't help the Native Americans and they had their native lands 150 years ago," said Common Sense director Kurt Daims.

Daims wants to raise $1 million to distribute among local Native American groups. Brattleboro Common Sense has an anonymous council working out how the organization can move forward with the project.

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"There are four parts," Daims said. "Money, a committee on determining certification, an education component requiring education about the American genocides in high school, and [possibly] considering a new form of currency to be used on reservations."

None of the components are written in stone, Daims said. When approaching people to join the council, Daims said he wanted to include diverse voices. He wasn't aware of committee members' ancestry before asking them to join the council, but many of the people he approached happened to be of Abenaki descent, he said.

"People say [of the Abenaki] 'we're here but you just don't see them,'" he said. Still, Daims said he doesn't think all Native Americans will be in favor of reparations. Daims said he spoke to one local Abenaki leader who said he didn't think people were ready for reparations, and he believes that some people may be afraid to ask for an apology.

"It should come from the guilty party," he said, referring to the U.S. "The guilty parties are gone and we've inherited their debt. That's how I see it."

White Plume also has reparation plans. He wants to sue both the federal government and the Catholic Church for the crimes they've committed against his people.

"There is no way America could own up to the historical debt that it's created," White Plume said. He doesn't want money. He just wants the land that Lakotas used to reside on.

In the original 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, White Plume's reservation consisted of land in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and possibly Montana. Currently, Pine Ridge exists only in South Dakota and is only 3,468.85 square miles. The reduction came after the U.S. broke the treaty in 1877. White Plume is asking for 97 million acres.

White Plume thinks returning the land to his people would be beneficial to white Americans too. In South Dakota, he said, he faces a lot of prejudice. "They hate us because of the guilt of living on stolen land," he said. "So they lash out. I don't call it racism, I call it guilt ... They hate us because we're beautiful skinned."

White Plume doesn't plan on displacing any white Americans who may live in the Lakota territory. He said there would be certain requirements, however. He wants people living in the territory to learn the Lakota language and participate in the culture. He also wants to charge what he calls a "white man's tax." The tax wouldn't be an additional tax to what white Americans pay now, he said. People living on reservations are exempt from state income and sales taxes and property taxes, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

And, White Plume wants to use hemp to help restore the land.

"After the fracking and the mining oil and uranium, the destruction of the water — we don't want that so we're going to declare the treaty territory a safe zone from all mining. It can be used to remove fuel, fiber, it can replace the oils," he said. "Hemp replenishes nutrients in the ground and makes the ground stronger."

Meanwhile, Vermont hemp farmers and sellers say they're still not safe from DEA prosecution.

Scott Sparks, the owner of Vermont Hempicurean, said that if the DEA wanted to make an example of him, they could raid his store.

Harmony Birch can be reached at hbirch @reformer.com, at

@Birchharmony on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 153.


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