"We will survive. We have always survived. We’re Lakota. We will survive this as well."

--Alex White Plume

The Story

"The helicopters landed two days before the harvest ceremony was to begin," Alex reports somberly. "I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' and a U.S. Marshal raised a machine gun and pointed it directly at me."

In 2000, federal agents arrived at dawn to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. "We invested $9,000 in that field. Our whole family, my sisters and brothers, were depending on that crop to get us through the winter," Alex says. Armed with guns and weed-whackers, the agents descended upon the White Plume land and destroyed their family’s industrial hemp crop.

The DEA makes no distinction between marijuana and hemp, despite the fact that THC, the psychoactive ingredient bred in abundance in marijuana, is not significantly present in hemp. Regardless, industrial hemp is considered an illegal drug.

“Within our family, we’re going to be doing 12 of the 36 different jobs that need to be done to create a hemp economy. We want to do what American people do. They produce something, they market it, they label it, they make money. That’s all we’re trying to do,” says Alex.

Alex is very clear about the economic and environmental benefits that drew him to hemp in the first place, “You can make clothing, you can make lipstick, you can make perfume, you can make shampoo. Anything that’s made out of plastic can be replaced with the products from hemp. You cannot get high from smoking industrial hemp.”

Hemp is resilient and can prosper even in the inhospitable South Dakota soil and extreme weather conditions. As it was traditionally with the buffalo, every part of the plant can be utilized. It grows abundantly and quickly without chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is beautiful country: rugged and expansive. It belonged to the Lakota before European settlers came. The White Plumes are eager to employ their greatest resource, their land, to create a brighter future for themselves.

Debra White Plume asserts, “You’re standing on land that for the past 25 years is considered either the first, second, or third poorest county in America. We found a way to plant seed and make a crop that could feed the economy of our nation, just like the Buffalo Nation did. The Buffalo provided us food, shelter, clothing, medicine. That’s what hemp can do. And now the government is finding a way to keep us off of our land. There’s a lot of ways that our people could enter into this industry and get a way out of this poverty affecting our nation.”

Although their two initial hemp crops were destroyed by the DEA, the White Plumes, undeterred, plant again in Spring 2002. In preparation for the anticipated August harvest, Alex invites witnesses to the land and set up security to guard against DEA eradication of the third crop.

Then, on Saturday, August 10th, as Alex sits watching cartoons with two of his grandkids, the side door opens and Alex’s wife, Debra, looks up. "Is Alex around?" inquire two men as they walk into the house uninvited. "Over there," she says, gesturing toward Alex.

Debra does not realize that these men were federal agents, assigned to serve Alex with an injunction preventing him from harvesting the family’s current crop of industrial hemp. The men attempt to touch Alex with the subpoena, and then left behind a huge stack of papers outlining the injunction and eight civil charges against Alex and his younger brother Percy.

In 1998, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council had passed an ordinance allowing hemp cultivation on the reservation. "The sovereignty of the Lakota Nation is being tested," says Alex, "I’m not sure if I should even appear in court because then I acknowledge the United States' authority over me."

The White Plume’s legal battles are in the hands of Alex’s attorneys. Bruce Ellison, the lead attorney, is the only one of them who operates out of Rapid City. "I actually practice criminal law and this is a civil case, so I’m in somewhat unfamiliar territory here," Bruce says smiling. Alex trusts Bruce because of his familiarity with treaty law and his experience handling difficult cases in the past.

To cover the costs of the lost hemp harvest, and to meet his required loan payment, Alex sells off most of his sixty wild horses and any other of his property that has value. “Sometimes it’s good to start over from nothing. We’ll build up again,” he says earnestly.

After an initial arraignment, the trial, scheduled for the Rapid City Federal Courts, is postponed. The family waits. They prepare for a new court date. But it never happens. Instead, the federal judge assigned to the case rules against the White Plumes in summary judgment.

The White Plumes appeal the decision.

Finally, in 2005, the 8th District Court of Appeals in St. Louis agrees to hear the White Plumes’ argument for appeal in front of a 3 judge panel. The judges appeared open to Bruce Ellison’s presentation. One went so far as to call the banning of hemp cultivation in the United States “asinine.”

Five months later, the judges rule against the White Plumes and the original ruling against them stands. In the conclusion of their decision, the justices write:

We are not unmindful of the challenges faced by members of the Tribe to engage in sustainable farming on federal trust lands. It may be that the growing of hemp for industrial uses is the most viable agricultural commodity for that region. And we do not doubt that there are a countless number of beneficial products which utilize hemp in some fashion. Nor do we ignore the burdens imposed by a DEA registration necessary to grow hemp legally, such as the security measures required by the regulations. See 21 C.F.R. §§ 1301 et seq. But these are policy arguments better suited for the congressional hearing room than the courtroom. Today we fulfill our role to interpret and apply the statute as written by Congress, and affirm the district court.

Despite the ruling, the hemp plants themselves remained unmolested, browning and seeding, and ultimately volunteering back each year.

“It’s not just about our family growing hemp. It’s about a bigger question about tribal sovereignty. It’s about treaty rights. Sovereignty isn’t something that you ask somebody for, sovereignty is something you assert. We want our sovereignty,” says Debra White Plume.

Alex expresses occasional regret for the choices he has made. "I'm not sure if I've lost my focus, if I've taken the wrong path for my family." But Alex believes fiercely in the future of hemp and the mandate of Indian sovereignty, and on these issues he remains unshakable. He and his family plan on taking the hemp issue in front of Congress.