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White Plumes relinquish hemp crop

MANDERSON, S.D. - For four hours under the sun of a hot and humid July morning Alex and Percy White Plume, their sisters Ramona and Alta, and a dozen of their children watched agents from the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency toil with weed-whackers and machetes, cutting down the family's second hemp crop on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The family's emotions ran from regret, disappointment and resentment to pain and sadness, but they recognized that allowing the eradication would guarantee no member of the family would face arrest or prosecution for planting or cultivating the herb.

Unlike last year's surprise dawn raid conducted by flak-jacketed agents toting semi-automatic rifles, this operation was more casual. This time the agents wore T-shirts and jeans or golf shirts and khaki slacks and, though they were armed, the weapons were side arms discreetly strapped to belts and thigh holsters.

But it was no less financially and emotionally devastating for the White Plumes. At one point tears welled up in Alex White Plume's eyes and he whispered, "I told the plants to be brave and strong and come back again next year."

The veneer of civility did nothing to ease the frustration and anger of the Lakota people over what they believe is an unjust suppression of their sovereignty and their treaty-given rights to establish hemp as an agricultural cash crop.

"This is a disappointment and so unfair," said Ramona. "It's our land, there's no drugs in these plants, they shouldn't have to come down."

In a quiet gesture of determination and defiance sisters Alta, Ramona, and a few of their children encircled the ceremonial staff bearing a yellow prayer tie filled with tobacco that had been placed in the middle of the field on the day of this year's planting. Even as the federal agents loudly cut a swath toward them, they remained in place, some standing, some sitting on lawn chairs, to protect the sacred object.

When the two groups met, the moment was heavy with tension and symbolism. Carefully, the federal agents wielded their blades and stooped to delicately remove the plants from around the silent Lakota people. Though neither side gave way, direct conflict was avoided.

After last year's hopes were dashed by the late August raid and destruction of the crop that had grown 12 to 14 feet tall, the entire extended White Plume family met to consider how to proceed.

Alex and his daughter, Rosebud, were guests on a trip to Germany to learn about the thriving hemp industry there and came back excited about what they had seen. The family prayed and did sweat lodges seeking spiritual guidance, and felt more strongly than ever that hemp was the key to their long-term financial health.

When they planted this year it was with solemn sincerity. They placed the ceremonial staff in the field and vowed the staff and the crop would not come down by their hand before harvest after the August full moon. The crop had a buyer committed to its purchase, but the threat of possible federal prosecution and a jail term that could have run 10 years to life became too much.

"I just treasured every morning that I woke up in my own bed and drank my coffee from the same mug I've used for nine years," Alex said. "I didn't want to have to leave my wife and takoja."

Other countries of the world, such as Germany and Canada, operate hemp industries and manufacture from it an array of products that would ease chronic needs and shortages of the people on the reservation. The White Plumes see that and wonder why this country's government refuses, in defiance of available scientific and anecdotal evidence, to differentiate between industrial hemp and its more notorious cousin, marijuana. They wonder why federal agencies continue to oppose and prohibit the open growth and manufacture of such a useful plant. They chafe at the heavy-handed repression of their efforts by federal agencies, and they stand less and less alone in that.

Seventeen states have passed legislation legalizing hemp as an agricultural crop within their borders, and though few of their citizens have made overt efforts to plant and cultivate it, there are groups and cooperatives forming and becoming active, such as the Kentucky Hemp Growers Association.

The White Plume family receives messages of support daily from around this country and around the world, and admiring visitors come to camp on their land and spend time with them. A mother and daughter from Grand Rapids, Mich., recently spent several days with the White Plumes to show their support, and a group of six or eight German citizens joined the White Plumes to watch and photograph federal agents as they mowed down the hemp field, bundled the plants and stacked them in a U-Haul van.

The White Plumes' negotiation with the FBI and DEA was preceded by consultations with Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele. Steele had issued a letter to U.S. Attorney Michelle G. Tapken defending the family's right, under Oglala tribal ordinance, to farm the hemp. He asserted the Lakota treaty rights and rejected any notion that the Controlled Substances Act was binding on the Lakota people or their reservation land. And, he instructed her to keep federal agents off the reservation for any reason pertaining to industrial hemp.

But Steele and the White Plumes were aware of a growing air of resentment among their people and talk of resistance to any federal incursion and they were clearly concerned about the potential for conflict. Apparently, so were federal authorities.

The agents had been expected at 7 a.m. Monday, but by 7:30 they still hadn't arrived. As about two dozen friends and family gathered at the field, two spotter planes circled in the cloudless blue sky, apparently to scout the size and demeanor of any crowd.

Alex White Plume stood in the back of a pickup truck and scanned BIA Road 33 with binoculars for the agents' vehicles. Finally, at 7:50, a convoy of minivans accompanied by a 14-foot U-Haul truck were spotted turning onto the White Plume property and met with a receiving committee of Alex's nieces and nephews.

One car proceeded to the field alone. It carried local FBI Special Agent Mark Vukelich and two high-level supervisors from the DEA, the federal site commanders. They shook hands with Percy and Alex White Plume and proceeded to dictate several conditions for the day's operation. The family was instructed to designate family members from the media and other observers. Only family members were allowed on the field during the operation, anyone else who went onto the field or approached any of the agents would be considered to be interfering with the operation and risked arrest.

During this confab, Marvin Kammerer, a white rancher and longtime family friend of the White Plumes, approached the federal supervisors and delivered a quiet but emphatic scolding, telling them they were in shameful violation of legitimate Lakota treaty rights and calling them "fascists." The agents listened silently but did not respond.

When the federal supervisors were satisfied everyone understood the conditions, they signaled other vehicles to move up to the field. They were led in by a pickup truck full of White Plume youths, but then drove around and positioned themselves on the far side of the field, opposite the gathered media and witnesses. In a hospitable but droll gesture, the White Plumes had provided coffee and doughnuts for the agents. It was ignored.

"Maybe they were afraid we laced them with something," said a guest, laughing.

As the agents gathered to don harnesses for their large, gas-powered weed eaters, the White Plumes gathered around the staff for a last prayer. Then Percy stood beside the U-Haul van to monitor the quantity of bundled plants removed. Alex rejoined the guests and observers.

Other than the brief face-off around the staff, the only moment of real tension was provided by officers of the local BIA Criminal Investigations unit who drove up to the field about an hour into the operation. Their presence enraged the previously self-contained Alex.

It was a member of that office who took a plant last year from the White Plume field, getting permission to do so by offering to test it and confirm its low THC content. Instead, the officer turned the plant over to the DEA and the White Plumes believe that started the chain of events that led to the paramilitary raid that followed.

Accompanied by several adult males, Alex approached the BIA vehicle and ordered the officers from the property.

"They have no authority or jurisdiction here, and they are not welcome on my land," he said.

The officers initially refused to leave, but as tempers flared and Percy joined the confrontation, Vukelich and the other site commanders interceded to defuse it. A moment or so later the BIA vehicle departed and the eradication continued without further significant incident.

The agents cutting down and gathering the hemp went about their business in a focused manner, and the site commanders declined to comment, deferring all questions to the U.S. Attorney's office. At press time there was no comment from that office.

There were small moments of terse interaction. At one point, a boy about 12 decided he wanted to keep a couple of his family's plants as remembrances and he carried a handful off the field. An agent intercepted him, gently but firmly insisting the lad give him the plants. After a seesaw moment of resistance the boy did so, and the agent carried them away.

Two agents who thought they were out of earshot of the family and observers shared a moment of exultation over their "victory." "Mission accomplished," said one, flashing a big grin.

Alex White Plume had gone to the field under the nearly full moon the previous night with his wife, Deb. They stood together near the staff to say a private goodbye to the plants that carried so many of their hopes. As the morning began, he assumed an air of slightly forced good humor. But after the confrontation with the BIA-CI officers and watching more and more of the plants fall under the DEA blades, his face and mood drooped.

When the agents moved to the original field down the hill to take out volunteer hemp plants they created by shaking loose seeds during last year's raid, Alex stepped forward to stop them. He asked for a moment of time and strode out onto the acreage the family had dubbed their "Field of Dreams." He said a prayer, sprinkled tobacco and asked the plants to be strong. When he left the field, it was obvious he could not bear to watch more than another few minutes. He got into his car and drove to his home.

After the agents left, Alex vowed the family would plant hemp again, a feeling echoed by his sister, Ramona. "Hopefully we'll plant next year again," she said.

The family also intends to file a civil damage suit against the federal government and President Steele supports this action.

"We're going to use a different strategy," he said. "We're going to go with a civil lawsuit, and we're going after two things. The DEA needs to pay Alex for those plants; and it's also to establish the tribe's authority to grow the product of hemp."

Alex's heart was too heavy to look too far ahead, and the family was overdue to depart for a Sun Dance on the Cheyenne River Reservation. They said they felt very much in need of the comfort and strengthening they would find in their traditional ceremony. Their wounds run deep and will take longer to heal than any they may take from Sun Dance piercings.

At a council meeting that morning, President Steele provided a postscript to this chapter of the family odyssey in his report to council representatives. "I can tell you that the White Plume family did not back down," he said.