An article that ran in Popular Mechanics in 1938 called hemp the “standard fiber of the world” and promised that production of this “cash crop” would reap several hundred million dollars per year.
A non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis sativa or marijuana plant, hemp could be used to make more than 25,000 products, ranging from clothing to dynamite to Cellophane. Hemp promised to “displace imports of raw material and manufactured products” and “provide thousands of jobs for American workers throughout the land,” the article stated.
Farmers made good on those promises for nearly two decades, despite concerns about hemp’s connections to marijuana. Now, nearly 70 years later, hemp may again prove to be a cash crop—for Native producers.
Advocates for hemp production are hoping a memo released this month by the federal Justice Department opens the door for legalization of hemp. The memo, originally dated October 28 and distributed to all U.S. Attorneys offices, says sovereign Indian nations can choose to grow or sell marijuana on tribal lands without fear of federal harassment.
“If the federal government is going to allow states to regulate cultivation of marijuana, they’re also saying they don’t have a problem with hemp,” said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a national non-profit organization advocating for a free market of industrial hemp.
“This memo is all-encompassing when it comes to the marijuana plant,” Steenstra said. “Hemp is going to be a non-issue if tribes want to reference this memo and pass regulations for hemp farming.”
The memo represents a reversal of federal strategy, at least on Native lands, when it comes to regulation of marijuana. In its memo, the Justice Department instructed U.S. attorneys to consult with tribal law enforcement offices and to focus efforts on keeping marijuana out of the hands of organized crime, away from children and out of states where it remains illegal.
The memo does not reference hemp, which was criminalized alongside marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. But it may open the door for tribes to return to traditional uses of hemp, which include the manufacture of rope, clothing, ceremonial items and medicine.
Hemp’s history, though corrupted and politicized, includes roots in Native culture. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes varieties of hemp as staples for tribes across the country and southern Canada, who used the fiber to make fishing nets, storage bags and itatamat or “counting the days” balls.
“From the time of her marriage, a woman would record a calendar of her life’s events by tying knots on a length of hemp as important events occurred,” states a plant guide published by the USDA. “She marked births, deaths and other extraordinary days with beads, shells or other talismans. When the ball got too large to handle easily, she started a new ball.”
Many of the hemp traditions likely changed in the early 20th century when the government began regulating all forms of the cannabis sativa plant.
The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 turned over the regulation of hemp products to the Department of Revenue and forced all who wanted to grow hemp to secure a license. During World War II, licensed hemp growers heeded the Army’s call and grew “Hemp for Victory,” supplying the nation with hemp after the Philippines fell to Japan.
But hemp’s popularity waned after the war and the last significant crop was harvested in 1957. Thirteen years later it was called a “controlled substance” and manufacture, use or possession was considered a crime.
That didn’t stop Alex White Plume and his family on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation from fighting back. Arguing that hemp production was protected by treaty, White Plume grew 300 acres of hemp in 2000, hoping it would deliver his family from a life of poverty and violence.
After a Drug Enforcement Administration raid, however, White Plume was banned for life from cultivating hemp.
The Justice Department’s memo boosted White Plume’s optimism, he said. Now 64, he expressed hope that the ban on hemp would be lifted—if not for him, then for the rest of Indian Country.
“I won’t be growing it because I have a lifetime restraining order,” he said. “But I feel positive that the government is finally recognizing its treaties.”
In a place like Pine Ridge, where unemployment tops 85 percent, the hemp industry could help revive the economy and strengthen sovereignty, White Plume said.
“The way I see it, this could replace casinos,” he said. “I’m tired of being over-regulated. I think tribes should accept this opportunity and let the people decide how to use it.”