MANDERSON, S.D. - Last month, shortly before Earth Day, more than two dozen members of the White Plume tiospaye or extended family, toddlers to adults, gathered on a high plateau on family land for a planting. Industrial hemp was returning to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
They traveled long distances to attend a ceremony to bless the field and efforts to establish industrial hemp as a reservation cash crop.
"To me it was really a sense of pride to see them all there," said an emotionally touched family patriarch, Alex White Plume. "Some of the relatives that came are really down on drugs ... because of people they have lost to drugs. But they came to a decision ... that hemp is not a drug and, finally, that hemp is nothing to be ashamed of."
Oglala Lakota tribal ordinance makes it legal for tribal members who are part of land use associations or extended family groups to plant and cultivate hemp on tribal land as long as the THC (tetrahydrocannibol) content measures less than 1 percent. THC is the chemical component that creates a "high" and is found at much higher levels in hemp's notorious cousin, marijuana.
Last year the White Plumes planted a 1.5-acre field of industrial hemp from seeds that qualified. Subsequent testing consistently showed plants, that flourished to a height of more than 12 feet, were well below the 1 percent threshold. Despite that, federal agents of the FBI, Drug Enforcement Agency, U.S. Marshals and BIA's Criminal Investigations division executed an early morning raid on the field in August, cutting down and confiscating the crop that represented the family's hopes and dreams.
There were harsh financial consequences. Every stalk in the field had been pre-sold to a consortium and loss of anticipated income meant the White Plumes had to sell off some prized horses to make payments due on their land. Recently they were down to only one functioning motor vehicle.
"I get scared that my dad and uncle might go to jail. But I believe in what we're doing and I believe that sometimes you have to make certain sacrifices in order to achieve certain goals that you believe in. That's the way I was raised," said Vic White Plume, Alex's nephew, a leader in the second generation of the White Plume tiospaye.
Alex asserts that everything was done openly last year, even to allowing tribal police to pull a sample plant for the federal government to test. He insists that if federal representatives had told him their objections and consulted with him as a member of a sovereign nation, he would have respected their concern.
"The Drug Enforcement Agency took it upon themselves to interpret our treaty and they violated our laws by coming onto our land and doing what they did," said White Plume. "We're not criminals, in my family we are not criminals. We are a gentle, peaceful people and we just wanted to do something that was good for our tribe and our family."
He said this year's planting is not an act of defiance but an act of faith with environmental, spiritual, moral and cultural motivation "that spring in part from the family's deep commitment to the heritage of their nation and band.
"In Lakota, Oglala is 'to return to the sacred,' to return to the ground from which we came out of, which is Wind Cave," Alex said. "We are the guardians of the Black Hills. Our role is to protect the hole that we came out of."
The White Plumes belong to the Crazy Horse band of the Oglala. Crazy Horse never signed a treaty, never gave up stewardship of the land. "We have that attitude," Alex said. "It's a dream that's still there, we've got to always maintain the dream that the Black Hills is still ours - we never signed it away - or we lose our identity as a people. And there's a day coming that we'll get that back and be able to use it."
Four days of ceremony preceded this year's planting, imbuing the White Plumes with a sense of sacred determination and renewed hope.
"Last year we said a few words of prayer and made an offering to Mother Earth with tobacco. This year we loaded a pipe and went through a whole ritual ... got a live tree to bring it back and use it for a staff. It was a real elaborate ceremony ... because we needed to charge the spirit of that staff to guard our hemp plants ... we planted it into the earth with a tobacco prayer bundle and an eagle plume, a white plume.
"It means a lot more to us this year and it's also going to hurt us more if they come and they cut those plants down and they cut that staff down. It will be just like cutting my leg off or something," White Plume said.
Ironically, last year's confiscated field is again awash in hemp plants, but not from the White Plumes' doing.
"These are planted by the FBI, the U.S. Marshal's service and the Drug Enforcement Agency," White Plume said. "When they cut them down they used weed eaters and they shook the plants so much the seeds fell and they replanted. We've closed our gates and we're not going to let anyone into this field. We don't want to touch this stuff, it wasn't of our making."
He jokes that they could have quite a tourist attraction on their hands. "I guess in America this is the first field grown by U.S. Marshals, DEA and the FBI. This is their field and if anybody wants to come here to look at a federally grown industrial hemp field we'll invite you down here and you can look at these plants."
There are clear signs hemp cultivation on American Indian reservations is an idea whose time has come. Alex and his daughter, Rosebud, went to Germany in November at the invitation of a consortium of hemp interests. They learned a great deal about the array of products made from hemp and the extent of the industry in Europe.
"My family members from Cheyenne River called after they got home and told me that 'Next year when some of your seeds come up' they want some because they're going to start their own field," White Plume said. "People from Rosebud, the Three Affiliated Tribes, Winnebago and Santee have all expressed interest in moving forward and getting seeds, so many I've lost track of them all."
Tribal government fully supports the White Plume family's continuing efforts to establish hemp as an agricultural crop on the reservation.
"Our tribal president, John Steele, wants to prove that we are a sovereign nation so this is a real exciting case for him," Alex said. "In his opinion what the feds did last year was totally against all laws of the tribe. They just jumped over the tribe's head like they are insignificant."
The White Plume family offered no resistance to the raid, a choice they don't regret although others have second-guessed them. A number of people on Pine Ridge are talking about forming a group to establish checkpoints at all entries to the reservation.
"Other men are getting together to protect us because they don't want to see that happen to us again," Alex said. "That's out of our control. We can't tell them 'don't do this' or 'leave us alone.' They're doing this on their own. I don't know how to deal with that."
The White Plumes do not plan to let this year's crop be seized, but aren't planning an armed resistance. "We're adamant that we're not going to let them take the hemp plants but we're not going to be violent about it," Alex said. Vic strongly concurred. "We're not going to let them take our stuff, that's for sure."
Now that the crop is planted, there is hope. But a certain amount of stress and tension is inescapable. "It kind of keeps me on edge. It makes me feel like a criminal, wondering if and when they're going to come in again," Vic said. It also deprives them of the ability to make any solid plans for the future, he said.
Alex said there was a time when he wished his family had never set out on this path. "Late last fall, when I couldn't pay my loans, I was ready to lose my lease and we had to sell some of our prime horses, it was about then that I said, 'Oh I wish we'd never planted this hemp.' Especially when we sold our fastest horse. But, at the same time, every day we live, we have to sacrifice something to get something better in the end. So we got over that hump."
"My family has been sacrificing for so many years, all the way back to the American Indian Movement, so to me it's just a way of life," Vic said.
If Alex and his brother were sent to jail, the family would continue the project "all the way down to the young kids. We'll keep planting and keep fighting for what we believe in, we can't stop," Vic White Plume said.
The entire new crop is spoken for and a good profit is expected. The family intends to keep the seeds. Part of the original plan was to stockpile seeds for what they see as a large future demand as hemp cultivation and the popularity of hemp products in this country increases.
White Plume said he is convinced that demand for and acceptance of industrial hemp will grow as people come to realize hemp constitutes no drug threat despite its relationship with marijuana.
"Industrial hemp shouldn't be demonized like it has been. Hemp needs to be separated from the controversy over marijuana."
White Plume keeps a sense of humor and balance while recognizing the risks, partly because of assurances of a spiritual leader who predicted a good harvest, that everything will be well. "That why we're continuing on so happily. Otherwise we would have fear or doubt or remorse."
Seeing themselves as the 'Standing Silent Nation,' the White Plumes have come to peace with what they are trying to do. "Now we're really proud of what we're doing. Everybody looks at us as the hemp growers. Ten years from now we're going to be known as the hemp grandfathers. So it's a good thing."