HOT SPRINGS, S.D. - The legal battle to allow families on the Pine Ridge Reservation to grow industrial hemp as a cash crop and help relieve poverty has shifted focus to include the issues of jurisdiction, sovereignty and freedom.
Attorneys fighting a federal court case stated the federal government will have to deal with treaties, sovereignty, individual rights and that America will be forced to look in the mirror and reflect on what freedom really means.
In the midst of this, Alex White Plume, the party in question in the court case, grew industrial hemp as head of his Tiospaye (extended family) to provide a future for the children. He grew three crops, all of which were cut down by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). He stood strong throughout the ordeal and has become a symbol of determination and freedom while becoming a cult hero.
"We almost lost our language. People that were forced to live in the cities were called ethnic minorities. I am not an ethnic minority, I'm special. It's a sickness we have to fight. "Hemp is not the only battle we have to fight to heal our wounds. My grandmother was killed at Wounded Knee and we are still dealing with that. I am tired of living with pain," White Plume said.
United States v. White Plume has taken on significance larger than just a court case about growing what the federal government deems an illegal substance.
"How can something so beneficial and non-threatening become illegal," asked Tom Ballanco, White Plume's attorney.
"The more I became interested in industrial hemp and when I came to the reservation to look at this case the more it showed me about the United States government.
"When I went through the DEA history and how it got started and seeing how things are on the reservation I thought maybe more than this part of the U.S. government was rotten," Ballanco said.
"We are defining what it means to be free and sovereign. Think how America treats these first nations. If America is to survive it has to treat these first nations fairly. I'm glad to be involved," Ballanco said.
White Plume is restricted by a restraining order to not harvest any industrial hemp on his land. He said he has one and a half acres of hemp now growing, that is almost ready for harvest. Each year the DEA harvests the crop, it drops seeds that germinate to create an even larger crop for the next year.
Hemp is a prolific plant that most people on Pine Ridge argue is ideal for the climate. The Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance that separates industrial hemp from the properties of marijuana, its sister plant, allowing it to be grown on the 1.4 million acre reservation. But the federal government does not separate the two plants and places hemp in the same category as marijuana.
White Plume, a mere four years ago, acted as head of his family and brought people together to create an economic base for everyone on his land. They harvest Echinacea, raise buffalo, have a small recreational camp and planned to harvest and create valued-added businesses in the hemp industry.
The DEA stepped in and created a nightmare for White Plume. He said he was distraught over the possibility of spending time in jail over something that has grown wild on the reservation for many years.
"My morale is going up. I have these conspiracy charges hanging over me. As head of the family I have to show strength, but last night I let it all out and cried like a baby," White Plume said.
He addressed a convention of hemp industry advocates and producers here.
What White Plume said he wanted was to simply to return to the way of his traditions as an Oglala Lakota.
And in a court case where a jury will have to decide the fate of hemp on the reservation or actually anywhere else, there is a fear that the federal government will be exposed and tribal sovereignty and the treaties will become strong evidence for the defense, said Bruce Ellison, attorney for White Plume.
He said the federal government was afraid to have issues of freedom, sovereignty and hemp explored with a jury. They sought an injunction against White Plume, based on what Congress allowed in the California medical marijuana issue that would avoid a possible loss in court.
"This gives us a chance to talk about sovereignty issue and the Treaty of 1868," Ellison said. He said the door opened when at a previous hearing a DEA agent said that the amount of THC in the hemp grown by White Plume was zero and he considered it only fiber and oil.
In the treaty, the Oglala Lakota and all Lakota were to become farmers. They would be given land, seeds and technical assistance. They were also given the right to live on their land, the reservations.
And in the 1930s people on the reservation were encouraged by the federal government to grow hemp to help ease the effects of a national depression. Today the remnants of that era can be seen in many draws and valleys with creeks and rivers where the hemp grows wild.
"I look forward to the first shipment of seed," Ellison said.
Attorneys assert that in a trial the imperial power of the Unites States that limits freedom for its citizens and especially those on reservations will become official public knowledge. "People will see how the federal government stands on indigenous people all over the world," Ballanco said.
"Everyone knows what the sense of freedom is and where we are at now is not a reflection of that vision."
Attorneys look forward to addressing the issues of sovereignty and freedom in court. The White Plume trial has not been set, but it is could come in the fall, attorneys said.
Historically the American Indians that inhabited America have been growing hemp for centuries; it was a traditional product for many people. Now the government claims that the people can't grow what was at one time an essential product for survival, tribal leaders argue.
"We are committed to growing hemp," said John Yellow Bird Steele, president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
"The tribal council authorized the growth of hemp. The U.S. government is controlled by the corporations and the corporations don't want the competition. It is an ideal crop for this reservation. We could take business away from the corporations," he said.
David Frankel, attorney for the hemp industry said his company bought the first plants grown on the reservation as a fiber product and donated the harvest for building materials. "This completes the process. It's the same as Gandhi did in India by using local products to make clothing and take away dependency from England.
"That was sovereignty," Frankel said.
On the Pine Ridge reservation unemployment is at 80 percent, and has been that way for years. Milo Yellow Hair, former tribal president and leader in the movement to grow hemp and other agricultural products said hemp can help create jobs. To further that goal, the United States must uphold and honor the treaties.
"This government does a lot in your name and not all of it honorable," he said.
What is needed is to find some way to create employment that has integrity and something that was grown and manufactured on the reservation, Yellow Hair said.