Interview and Photos by Dan Skye
In the year 2000, two crops of hemp were sown on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota—one by the Slim Buttes Land-Use Association and one by the family of Alex White Plume. Unfortunately, the DEA raided both crops at gunpoint and seized the crops.
Now, only Alex White Plume is growing hemp—or at least he has tried. In each of the past two years, he has defied federal authorities and planted seeds on his land. Both times, those crops were seized.
Now the hemp is growing again. Not because of Alex, but because the elements have scattered seeds far and wide across the 2,000-acre White Plume ranch. Here, in one of the poorest communities of the US, one family is keeping the embers of hope for legal hemp burning.
Describe growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.
I have a total of nine brothers and sisters. I grew up speaking the Lakota language, and English was a foreign language. We didn’t really know how to speak English until we were in the fourth grade. I never considered us being poor. We always lived way out in the country. We always had the essentials for survival, so I never knew what poverty was like. My parents and grandparents always raised all kinds of corn and potatoes, and Dad and them used to hunt and bring food back. So when I grew up, you never saw a bunch of men sitting around. They all grouped up—two, or four, or five—and they’d do things like cut wood for a whole month practically, just to get prepared for winter. Every day they’d go out and bring wood back and stockpile it—preparations for life.
Life was a struggle a long time ago. You had to make your own food, or else you’d go hungry. There were no conveniences like today, where you go to a grocery store and come back and you slap something in a microwave, and in a few minutes you’ll be sitting down there eating. It was way different, the way I grew up, from the way life is today.
You have become a respected spokesman for legal hemp in America. Has that come as a surprise?
No, not really. Our parents have passed away and I’m the oldest White Plume male. I’ve had to be a leader from a very young age. When I was twelve years old, I was the father, I was the mother, I was the big brother, the uncle, and grandpa and grandma, all these wrapped in one. All my siblings were younger than me. I grew up being a leader, so I think maybe that that has taught me a lot of good decision-making.
I’m a leader. I’ve been a leader all my life. That’s how I got my credibility. I was in all aspects of tribal government. I’m chairman of the school board for the last twenty-four years. I’m not a criminal. I don’t have any criminal intent at all.
What does hemp represent to the Lakota people?
For me, personally, it represents freedom. It represents sovereignty. It represents a means to support my family. A long time ago, the Lakota didn’t need money to survive. They just killed what they needed to eat and existed with all living elements. Today that has shifted. We need money so we can trade. I have a large family, and we all need income. In our whole family, there are nine adults on our tiospaye [a family’s tribal land holdings]. That’s the clan. Out of that, only two of them have employment. We’re not starving on the reservation, but we don’t have money. They’re responsible for helping all the rest of us who aren’t employed. So money is just stretched very thin. We would like to be able to supply ourselves with the basic needs to survive.
When did you first discover hemp’s potential value?
A lot of our relatives were interested in hemp clear back in 1986 or ’87. These ideas were really just talked about. Our tribal government separates industrial hemp from marijuana. Hemp can be grown by tiospayes like ours, and by land-use associations.
But that hasn’t been the case. You’ve had confrontations with the DEA the past three years.
If I was committing a crime in the year 2000, they should have taken me to jail. I should have already been prosecuted and sentenced and sent off some place, if those laws apply to me. But they stole it that first year. We were just getting going and our morale was high, and we were just enthused about it until the DEA came here and pointed guns at us and scared us half to death. They came here and basically held me at gunpoint and stole it. And that’s an act of terrorism right here in our country.
The second year it was a little more civil. I was told I was facing two life terms, and so was my brother Percy, if we didn’t allow them to destroy the crop. It was really touchy, real delicate. A lot of our young men on the reservation are just tired of watching the Feds come in here and just have their way with us every time we try to start something in the area of economic development. That was one of the reasons why my brother and I decided last year just to go ahead and sign the agreement to allow them to come and cut down our crop.
Last year they filed a civil lawsuit against us, and they want us to stop growing. They have a restraining order against us. They’re telling me that I can’t grow this sacred plant. It’s just ridiculous. I just can’t interpret that in my language in any way. It doesn’t make sense.
But I just signed a contract with a company. They want to buy any amount of seeds we produce here. They’re not the only ones. I’ve got offers to buy from different companies. There are opportunities opening up.
Do you have any plans to grow this year?
This year, we just watch the plants. In 2000, when they cut the plants down, they used weed whackers, and reseeded the field something awful. That next year, it was amazing. Every half-inch, a hemp plant was coming up.
We’re not going to give up on our dreams. I already taught my grandchild how to plant hemp when he was five years old, and he’s never going to forget that. Today when you drive by, the hemp plants are standing there by the side of the road in all their glory and their beauty, even in winter. Everywhere you spill five gallons of water, a hemp plant will miraculously spring to life. They’re still standing there, they’re alive, and I always acknowledge them: “You guys are strong! Be like the buffalo! Be like the Lakota and survive!”
Describe the nature of racism toward Indians.
In this country, they tend to treat Native Americans—as they call us—as ethnic minorities, rather than as a people with a special treaty standing with the government. All that put together amounts to what you call oppression. It’s really difficult if you live under oppression day in and day out, year in and year out. It builds up this real negative pressure in your body and in your system. It’s like a cancer. So you need to unleash all that negative energy somehow. A lot of people don’t know how to do it, so they turn to alcohol.
A lot of our people don’t choose to be alcoholics. A lot of them are just stuck in this oppression so bad that they wish for another way out. They don’t want to come back to this pain, this shame of not even being able to provide. Some people have a real romantic image of us. They see buffaloes and tepees and feathers and hear the drum. That’s one extreme. The other is “dirty, lazy, diseased, drunken Indian.” It’s a common image people have of us off the reservation. But come here and see my family. We treat people well. We’re humans. We have kids. We love, we hug them, and we cherish them just like everybody else in this world.
We’re still being mistreated because of what we did to Custer at the Little Bighorn. We wiped him out in battle. It was an open battle. He had arms, our men had arms. We rode through him and rubbed him out in just a few hours. And we captured that American flag. But since that time, because we captured that flag, we’re being made to suffer. The Lakota people are the only people that ever defeated this country in open warfare on the battleground. When you come down to any of our ceremonies or rituals, our older men will come dancing into the powwow arena carrying an American flag, because their family won that at the Little Bighorn. America needs to come and deal with us on that and say, “Hey, I know you guys defeated us, but we want our flag to have honor and dignity.”
The Lakota are historically known as a “warrior” tribe. What is the meaning of warrior?
It means many things. For me personally what it means that I have to “make my relative.” I have a ceremony called the “making of your relative.” In Lakota, when you say “my family,” you don’t mean your wife and your children. That’s your own intimate family. Your family is your brothers and your sisters and your father and your mother—that is the family. So the family is what you call a tiospaye, that’s the extended family. It’s made up of small intimate, little families. That’s how we live and we’re just happy by it. A warrior stands in front of something bad that is coming to his people. A warrior will stand in the way for his people.
What is the biggest misconception about Native Americans?
If you ask Lakota people what they want, chances are what we’re going to say is we’d like to have access to our sacred sites—a very basic, simple request, so that our culture can survive and continue. We need these sacred sites—our Black Hills and Bear Butte and what you call Devil’s Tower. Those are very sacred sites to us. The thing we have is our language. It’s still alive—our old kinship system and the social structure are all intact. Nothing has ever been damaged.
How do you view the growing climate of war in this country?
I already know what’s going to happen to Afghanistan and I already know what’s going to happen to Iraq. They’re following the same scenario they used on us as Lakota people. We used to own this whole region. Today we're held on these tiny Indian reservations, like we’re in prison and our land is held in trust. All our resources are being violated and used without our permission. That’s what’s going to happen in Afghanistan. They’re all going to be living on little Indian reservations, and America will hold their land in trust. Colin Powell back in January made a comment on what’s going to happen to the Iraqi oil. He said they were going to take it “into trust for them.” They already had experience killing Indian people and wiping them off the map in this country, totally conquering our minds and placing us on these reservations as wards of this country. It’s going to happen to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does the fact that many non-Indians are attracted to Native spirituality bother you?
I have an uncle who’s a spiritual leader, and I asked him that question and he said, “They wrote their spirituality down on a piece of paper—this is what this guy did, and this is what that guy did—and they wrote a Bible. So for two thousand years, they didn’t follow their spirituality, but they followed their book and their little rules to the T.”
Every hundred years or so, Mother Earth shifts, she changes. And when she shifts and changes, you have to be on her, you have to be ready to be in on the scheme of the new changes. New trees will evolve, new plants will evolve, new diseases will evolve. The Lakota people have been doing that. But when you have yours written down, it eventually becomes real obsolete. It doesn’t keep up with the natural cycle of Mother Earth. People are finding that out, and they’re giving up on the religion and looking for their spirituality—their own spirituality. So they come amongst our people because we maintain ours, and they practice our spirituality. They don’t live it, they don’t breathe it—they just practice it to try to gain their own spirituality.
But we really feel compassion for these people. Without spirituality, you’re not alive, you’re not whole, you’re not well. We see that. Everybody needs to be totally well and normal. Each individual has to maintain his own spirituality. And when you blend a bunch of spiritually well people who come together and form a circle and sit down to talk, it’s a beautiful sensation.
On June 25th, the 11th Lakota War Pony Races will be held at the White Plume ranch, an event that honors the memory of Crazy Horse featuring traditional, cultural races.