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Analysis: Hemp seizure by federal agents on Indian reservation prompts review of tribal sovereignty and the legality of growing industrial hemp

Posted on September 26, 2000

Host: Noah Adams, Robert Siegel
Time: 8:00-9:00 PM

NOAH ADAMS, host: From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I’m Noah Adams.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: And I’m Robert Siegel.

A raid by federal agents on an Indian reservation in South Dakota is testing the limits of tribal sovereignty. Last month, DEA agents seized hemp plants being grown by the Oglala Sioux tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Hemp is the same plant as marijuana. It’s illegal to grow without a special permit in the United States. But in 1988, the Oglala Sioux legalized industrial-grade hemp, and the tribe claims that they have the sovereign right to grow and use it. The case is now going to federal court and it could eventually change the legal status of industrial hemp. South Dakota Public Radio’s Charles Michael Ray reports.

CHARLES MICHAEL RAY reporting: One early morning last month, 25 federal agents descended on the dusty hills of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Their mission was to confiscate an acre and a half of hemp plants that were growing in a small wooded valley on Wounded Knee Creek. That morning, federal agents got Lakota hemp farmer Alex White Plume(ph) out of bed with a phone call, warning him that his crop was being confiscated.

Mr. ALEX WHITE PLUME (Hemp Farmer): And as I got closer, I could see the helicopter just hovering above the hemp field. And here it was no Indian cops at all. It was all white men with black vests and they all had arms; they had pistols and they had rifles.

RAY: The Drug Enforcement Administration seized the hemp fields in standard drug raid fashion. That’s because federal law draws no distinction between industrial hemp and marijuana. Hemp advocates argue the difference between the two is significant because industrial hemp can’t get you high. It has very low levels of THC, the chemical giving marijuana its mood-altering effects. Pine Ridge hemp advocates say their hemp crop tested at .03 percent THC, while the drug marijuana tests between 3 to 12 percent THC.

The Pine Ridge tribal government says that as a nation of people, it has the right to legalize, cultivate and use hemp on tribal lands.

(Soundbite of engine)

RAY: Across the reservation from the seized hemp fields, a cement mixer churns a mixture of mud and hemp fibers. Pine Ridge is in the poorest county in the nation and has a severe housing shortage. Builders here are using imported hemp products in a variety of applications in two housing projects. Advocates of industrial hemp say the long fibers of the plant can be used to manufacture everything from paper to sandals to roofing shingles.

In 1998, the Oglala Sioux tribe legalized industrial hemp on the reservation in hopes of stimulating the economy by providing raw materials for local manufacture of hemp goods. Tom Belanko(ph), the attorney for the Oglala Sioux tribe on this case, says the tribe has the same sovereign right as any other nation to grow hemp as an economic stimulator.

Mr. TOM BELANKO (Attorney): The federal government’s been telling the tribal nations, you know, “You have to give up your nomadic lifestyle and take up farming.” They’ve been saying that for over a hundred years. And here, they’re actually taking a step to do that, develop some self-sufficiency on the reservation, develop sustainable agriculture, something that gives them a means to influence their own future, and the moment we get a couple of steps in a positive direction, they come in and try and shut it down.

RAY: But federal officials argue that the tribe doesn’t have the right to legalize hemp. DEA spokesman Michael Chapman(ph).

Mr. MICHAEL CHAPMAN (DEA Spokesman): It’s not a sovereignty issue. You know, federal law supercedes, you know, any other type of a law, tribal law out there. So people that are growing the cannabis plant are in violation of federal law.

RAY: It will now be up to the federal courts to decide the legal boundaries of tribal sovereignty on this issue. In the meantime, the DEA says it is researching any legitimate uses of industrial hemp. Regardless, those on Pine Ridge say they will continue to grow hemp.

At a recent really in front of the federal building in Rapid City, about 50 hemp activists and native people came together to protest the hemp crop confiscation. Former vice president of the Oglala Sioux tribe Milo Yellow Hair rallied the crowd.

Mr. MILO YELLOW HAIR (Former Vice President, Oglala Sioux Tribe): He may have taken out an acre and a half of hemp that’s growing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but he better have a lot more people, because we’re going to be having a hundred acres next year here.

(Soundbite of cheering, applause)

RAY: The ruling in this case could have major implications, not just on the sovereign power of tribes, but on the legality of hemp itself. While the DEA is actively reviewing their policies on hemp cultivation, those backing hemp growers hope that the case will not only deal with the issue of sovereignty, but also lay the groundwork for reclassifying industrial hemp as an agricultural product rather than an illegal drug crop. For NPR News, I’m Charles Michael Ray in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

NOAH ADAMS, ROBERT SIEGEL, Analysis: Hemp seizure by federal agents on Indian reservation prompts review of tribal sovereignty and the legality of growing industrial hemp.

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