RAPID CITY, S.D. - Industrial hemp growers on the Pine Ridge Reservation want the cut plants back. The product will be used to create building materials for a new home.
When the Justice Department filed a motion to have the industrial hemp destroyed, the growers filed a counter motion to have the hemp returned. The Drug Enforcement Administration raided hemp fields owned by Alex White Plume and the Slim Buttes Land Use Committee Aug. 24.
A motion filed in U.S. District Court here by Milo Yellow Hair, Land Committee director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Joe American Horse and Alex White Plume alleges that it is the right of members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe to grow industrial hemp in accordance with the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and the 1937 amended Marihuana Tax Act.
"We are on the cutting edge. This is something we want to do as economic development. There are a lot of people on the reservation that will do something with us. We are not alone in this fight," Yellow Hair told the gathering at the federal court house.
"We need to do something about our 80 percent unemployment on the reservation and one thing is to cultivate industrial hemp. What happened to us can happen to anyone. This is not an illegal activity."
A Pierre attorney representing a company that planned to build a house using the industrial hemp has entered the fray.
Jamie L. Damon said Tierra Madre LLC filed a civil lawsuit asking for a temporary restraining order against the DEA to prevent the plants from being destroyed.
Damon said her client is suing both the DEA and the White Plume family for return of all 744 bundles of hemp being held by the federal government. She said Tierra Madre put a down payment on the Pine Ridge hemp and wants its property.
In addition to return of the harvested hemp, the Pine Ridge group asked the court to conduct a full evidentiary hearing on the treaty issues before it makes a decision about destruction of the hemp confiscated by the DEA.
At stake in the case is sovereignty and self-determination, attorney for the plaintiffs Tom Ballanco said. What the federal government is trying to tell the tribes is to give up and continue on the course of substandard agriculture, he said. Ballanco added that the DEA was playing games.
"This is a battle of semantics. Once they hear our side, they will classify the plant as an agricultural product. White Plume's plants tested out at less than .3 percent THC. You couldn't smoke enough to get any effect," Ballanco said.
"This issue brings sovereignty to the front. That's what sparked my interest."
Ballanco, dressed almost completely in clothing and shoes made from hemp, was instrumental in writing the ordinance adopted by the Oglala Lakota Nation in 1998. The ordinance allows cultivation of industrial hemp and recognizes that industrial hemp was grown in the region at the time the treaties were signed.
Linking industrial hemp to the treaties would make it a legal crop, proponents claim. "The signers of the treaty could have grown hemp, they tied it into the treaties," Ballanco said.
The hemp grown on the Slim Buttes land use plot and the acre and a half on the White Plume land near Manderson was to be used for building materials this year. One house is already under construction and another is about to begin. The product is also used to produce cloth, oils and food products.
What White Plume attempted to do was create a viable economic development project for his extended family or tiospaye, he said. They already have a buffalo herd and tourist-oriented, horse-riding business.
"I am the eldest in my family and I talked to the family about this. They decided to save the world.
"We planted the crop with the children and grandchildren. We watched the plants every day. It's a beautiful plant."
Woody Harrelson, known for his acting role on the television show "Cheers" and in various movies, has been at the forefront of the movement to legalize industrial hemp. He came to Pine Ridge to help White Plume and others get through the issues with the federal Justice Department. Harrelson also managed to attract the attention of the media.
"The DEA decided they knew more than God about what a plant is. This plant can revolutionize things. This wasn't just Alex's crop, this was for all of the Oglala to make homes. Now (the federal government) would like to put us in jail," Harrelson said.
Believers in the industrial hemp movement claim the product is the center of the future of sustainable agriculture. More than one tribe has either attempted to implement the crop on reservation land or is considering the prospect. The Navajo Nation Council is in the process of enacting ordinances to legalize the crop on its vast reservation.
There is limited case law involving American Indian reservations and the hemp issue. In 1983 a case, United States vs. Blue involved a situation on the Turtle Mountain reservation where marijuana was grown. The Controlled Substance Act was cited in that case, but attorneys in the White Plume and Slim Buttes case argue that while the act may have been applied in that case, industrial hemp grown on the Pine Ridge Reservation is different.
An argument advanced in the written motion to the court asserts that the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act made an attempt to control the mood-altering drug while not hindering the production of industrial hemp.
"The legislative history indicates that Congress never intended to restrict the legitimate production of industrial hemp in the United States, let alone to abrogate any reserved treaty rights allowing for cultivation of industrial hemp on the Pine Ridge Reservation," the court document states.
It further states that the DEA does not have the power to nullify a treaty, and it said the court should not grant it the right to do so.
"(Ted) McBride (U.S.Attorney) may have taken out an acre and one-half, but next year there will be 100 acres. He will need more men," Yellowhair said.
White Plume said the DEA agents cut the plants and in the process left the roots and the seeds dropped on the ground. The growers are confident the plants will come back supported by new growth from sprouting seeds.