MANDERSON, S.D. - Louie B. Nunn is an attorney, a former governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and a fervent proponent of hemp as an agricultural crop.
He said he believes it could save the family farmers in his state where tobacco cultivation is on the decline. Earlier this month he was on the Pine Ridge reservation to visit the White Plume family of Kiza Park who, in compliance with tribal ordinance, have planted hemp on their land for the last two years.
"I guess you might describe it as a quasi-legal and a humanitarian visit," Nunn said, adding that he came to "share with the people here some of the views that I have on how their conditions might be better improved and to offer whatever advice that I could to Alex concerning the crop that he is growing. I ... thought that I might be able to do something to help the plight of the people here."
Nunn became involved in the hemp controversy when environmentalist-actor Woody Harrelson went to Kentucky in 1996 and publicly planted four certified industrial hemp seeds in protest against its status as a controlled substance.
"I didn't think that he should go to jail. I didn't think he had committed any crime in the state," Nunn said. "I volunteered to defend him. And when I did, they asked me to help them with legislation, so I did assist them in getting legislation through the state."
Nunn says he is convinced hemp can be an economic salvation for the tobacco farmers in Kentucky and economically impoverished American Indians living on reservations.
The former governor was at the base of Mount Rushmore late last year when 20 bales of industrial hemp, imported from Canada in accordance with the North American Free Trade Agreement, were donated by the Kentucky Hemp Growers Association to another group of Oglalas who grew hemp last year.
The Slim Buttes Land Use Association planned to build a test house with hemp bricks on the reservation, but saw their crop fall in the same federal raid that took the White Plume family's first crop.
The Kentucky group's assistance allowed the hemp brick house to be completed.
Hemp seed contains one of the most complete and readily available vegetable proteins known, and hemp seed oil is lower in saturated fats than any other vegetable oil including soybean and canola, researchers say. Cellulose fiber from hemp plants can be used to produce paint, PVC pipe and many durable building materials. One acre of hemp yields an amount of cellulose, available for processing into paper, equal to the yield of 4.1 acres of trees.
Nunn has eaten candy bars made from hemp and worn clothing made from its fibers, but it's the exploration of hemp's usefulness by an industrial giant that really has him enthused.
"General Motors in Canada has made a contract to make the panels of the Chevrolet Lumina (from hemp). Some of the foreign cars like Mercedes have hemp panels in it where it's made in Germany."
He said held out hope for Kentucky farmers if nearby automakers explored hemp-fiber panels. "With Toyota and the Ford Motor Co. there in Kentucky and with Nissan close by in Tennessee, I thought we could do with hemp what we had done with tobacco."
Nunn said there is a serious lack of awareness of the broad usefulness of hemp partly because current federal laws don't even allow testing, research and development to be done by universities or commercial and scientific labs.
He pointed out that industrial hemp was hugely important to the war effort. "During World War II, Kentucky was number one in the growth of hemp," said Nunn. "They (the federal government) were begging people to grow it, and they did. A friend of mine told me that his father had 500 acres of hemp when he died, which is a right sizable plot compared to what they're speaking of here."
The White Plume field last year was 1.5 acres and this year it's about 2 acres.
Nunn said in his computer research for an information package for the Kentucky Legislature he found "the logo that the United States government used. It's a hemp leaf and it said 'Hemp For Victory,' and under it was 'U.S. Department of Agriculture 1942.' So I just pulled that off the screen and put it on the letters and the material that we distributed."
There has been a serious misinformation campaign against hemp for years, but most virulently since the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency, Nunn said. "The DEA has a $500 million budget to destroy hemp and that means every plant of that particular species and in Kentucky they spray a lot of ditchweed. They get like a dollar and five cents for each plant that they spray. There's not a bureaucracy in the world that got a $500 million budget, enough for all those jobs they're able to give in the summer. They're not going to give that up very easily."
Nunn thinks the tide is turning in hemp's favor. "I think it's a long, uphill climb, but if you put together the U.S. representatives and U.S. senators of the 17 states that have passed laws legalizing the cultivation of hemp, they're going to have to give some consideration to what the local legislators and, in some cases, the local governors of 17 states are saying."
Nunn wouldn't disclose his discussions with the White Plume family, only that it was not formal legal advice. But Nunn was one of several high-profile individuals with legal backgrounds who attended recent meetings there. Tom Ballanco, who advised the Slim Buttes Land Use Association and prepared research that played a role in the passage of the Oglala tribal ordinance, was present as was Rapid City attorney and treaty specialist, Bruce Ellison.
Participants discussed choices the White Plumes might have, including pulling up this year's crop to avoid further incursions onto their property by federal agencies and the arrests that might accompany another raid.
At press time, the White Plumes had no statement of their intent regarding the crop, which now stands 4 feet high. Their struggle lies primarily in a sacred commitment they made to the field and its crop in April planting ceremonies.
Walking through the field, Alex White Plume pointed to the staff in the center of the field and a yellow prayer tie at the top. It swayed in the breeze.
"Before we planted we prayed and prayed for guidance," White Plume said. "And when we put this staff into the ground we pledged to the spirits that it would not come down by our hand until we harvested. How can we go back on something like that?"