Seed in the ground

Some Oglala Lakota hope hemp can yield a stable government and a healthy economy

  • Feather logo

    Diane Sylvain
  • HEMP HOUSE: "Hempcrete" blocks contain hemp hurds,hydrated lime, sand and cement

    Malcolm MacKinnon
  • BUSTED DREAM: Deborah White Plume takes a last look at herfamily's hemp fields, last August, before federal agents destroythe crop

    Laura M. Dillinger, Indian Country Today
  • Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook

    Malcolm MacKinnon
  • John Yellow Bird Steele, tribal president

    Laura M. Dillinger
  • Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

    Diane Sylvain

Note: A sidebar article accompanies this story under the headline "Marijuana's boring sibling."

PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D. - Thick clouds the color of ash hang low in the sky, and the damp and cold air sinks into my bones like a long depression. Here in the Slim Butte region of the reservation, the landscape is a muted palette of pockmarked clay roads, ochre grass, and the occasional dingy trailer. The wind slices across rolling hills and flat prairies, whipping up dust, the smell of sage, and - oddly - the sound of children's voices.

"Come look upstairs," cries a little boy. He runs in and out the front door of a newly built house, braids flying.

I follow him inside, into the smell of new paint and five empty rooms waiting to be filled by the Afraid of Bear family. Currently, Pancho and Ruth Afraid of Bear live with their eight children in a two-room house. Pancho's father, the family elder, sleeps in his truck, which is parked in the front yard. Here, their situation is hardly unusual.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, population 30,000, unemployment runs 85 percent, hundreds of tribal members are homeless, and the majority of those who aren't live in overcrowded housing built by the federal government. The median annual income is $2,600; most people live on welfare checks and on food provided by the federal government.

"This is so important," says Ruth Afraid of Bear softly. "Nothing good happens here; to have this is really good."

The house doesn't look special: Unfinished stucco the color of pencil lead covers clay bricks; the upstairs loft, framed in wood, is unpainted. But to the Afraid of Bear family and the Slim Butte community, this two-story structure is a small miracle. It holds within the very structure of its walls what they say could be the key to economic self-sufficiency: hemp. Mixing pulp from the plant's stalk with limestone, sand and clay, over the past few years, on weekends and in spare moments, volunteers have created bricks, stucco and shingles. And houses are just a beginning. The several reservation families that have grown the plant want to use it to manufacture clothing and to press oil for cooking and lotion.

Unlike many crops, hemp thrives in the harsh climate and clay-laden soil of the reservation. Planting it was easy, but growing it to maturity was quite a bit more dramatic. Two years ago, days before the hemp growers were planning to harvest their crop, they were awakened at dawn by the clopping of helicopters. While three aircraft circled overhead, 25 Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement agents spilled out of SUVs wearing flak-jackets and toting semi-automatic rifles. Members of the Afraid of Bear and White Plume clans watched while the agents chopped down the two acres of hemp with supersized, gas-powered weed eaters.

"I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' and an FBI guy raised a machine gun and pointed it directly at me," Alex White Plume told reporters that September.

Federal drug law doesn't distinguish between hemp and its illegal cousin, marijuana, but the White Plumes and the Afraid of Bears say that shouldn't matter. The Oglala Lakota, or Oglala Sioux, is a sovereign nation, and tribal law views hemp as a legal crop. To test that premise, the White Plumes, backed by the opinions of lawyers, planted hemp again last spring. Once again, federal agents weed-whacked the crop.

Still, the federal government has not completely stymied the Lakotas' effort.

In the past several years they have gained backing for their cause from an array of nonprofits, as well as from The Body Shop, a retail chain interested in sustainable products, and movie star Woody Harrelson. These high-powered allies have provided hemp from Canada (where it is a legal crop) to build homes like the Afraid of Bears', as well as a community center on the White Plumes' land, while activists pursue recourse through Congress. They hope to convince politicians to amend federal drug laws to allow the growing of hemp on reservations. Project supporters say growing hemp is about far more than economic development. It is about asserting Oglala Lakota authority as a sovereign nation. It's also about overcoming the biggest impediment to prosperity: a tribal government that has never represented its members.

"What we're doing is a survival measure for our people," says Joe American Horse, a member of the Slim Butte community. "This (current) tribal council, it doesn't work; we're trying to create a government of people for the people."

American Horse's niece, Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook, and I drive along a rutted dirt road, swerving past potholes, beer cans and bags of trash. The 4,375 square-mile reservation, bigger than Yellowstone National Park, looks vast from the car. There is no gas station or post office or convenience store here in Slim Butte to obscure the view. The plains sweep away in all directions, interrupted only by the occasional cluster of pine trees or a rusted span of fencing. As we bump along, she talks about tradition.

"I grew up around my grandparents and they taught me to have pride in the old ways," says Afraid of Bear-Cook, whose black hair hangs to her waist. "They gave me a lot of confidence, which helped me stick to my beliefs."

Filling the car with stories about Indian boarding school in Rapid City, Afraid of Bear-Cook recounts that all the girls in her class were excited for graduation because they got to wear high heels for the ceremony.

"I laughed at them for wanting to be like white girls," she says, her eyes full of mischief. "Instead, I went out and bought a new pair of moccasins for the ceremony. No one knew what to make of me."

Now 54 and the mother of three, Afraid of Bear-Cook still fights to retain the old ways. It is why she and her husband, Tom Cook, former American Indian Movement activists, run a community garden program on the reservation. It is what led her into hemp production, eight years ago. Every year until his 21st birthday, her son had a manhood ceremony performed in a tipi * a pricey ritual, since canvas tipis rot and fall apart every three years in the sun, wind and cold of the South Dakota plains. While investigating longer-lasting material, she came upon hemp. When she learned that the price of hemp was astronomical, and that she would have to order it from China, the gears in her head began to churn: "All of a sudden, we realized there was a market out there."

Here, she thought, was a niche market that, like casinos, the majority of Americans couldn't exploit. Here was an opportunity for tribal members to create an economy on the reservation.

But she was reluctant to bring the tribal government on board. For decades, it had managed economic development, and, according to Afraid of Bear-Cook, "None of it ever bore fruit."

The list of failed projects drags on like a limping dog: the bow and arrow factory, the plastic Indian-doll factory, the fishhook factory, the moccasin factory, the attempt to farm all plowable land.

"Whenever the tribal council changed, the whole thing went down the tubes," says Joe American Horse. "It's the same problem over and over."

A current example: a proposed scenic byway and cultural heritage museum. The tribal government has invested more than $75,000 in the project - a small percentage of the tribe's $60 million budget, but a significant chunk of change for a government that can't afford a new sewage system. Proponents say the road would pull visitors from Badlands National Park south onto the reservation. Because the road would run through the park, the federal government has also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on feasibility studies and environmental assessments. Under the former tribal administration, the project gained momentum, but the current tribal council, elected in October 2000, has different ideas about where the road should intersect the reservation and which town should host the cultural center. Now, the federal government is conducting new studies and the project has been set back at least another year.

The delay is due to the constant turnover of tribal elected officials every two years, says Badlands National Park Supervisor William Supernaugh, who has spent the last several years working on the highway project.

"It takes the first year for people to get educated on the issues and then the second year they're running for re-election," says Supernaugh. "This revolving door of politicians is terribly inefficient."

Fred Brown Sr., the tribal director of economic development, agrees that the government structure doesn't foster good business. Brown moved back to the reservation in 1977, after attending Black Hills State University and working as an accountant in Rapid City, because he wanted to help his tribe. It hasn't been easy. Tribal council members run both the finance and the economic development committees. With all of their other responsibilities, the 18 council members can't handle the details of business operations, says Brown.

"They're too busy and they're also too politically minded," says Brown. "I stay out of politics; that's what ruins projects."

Since the tribe is the largest employer on the reservation, economic opportunity is what drives elections and the 65 percent voter turnout. A candidate's success may depend upon the perception that he or she will get the voter a job. That creates a bad business climate, says Brown.

It was precisely this climate that convinced Afraid of Bear-Cook, her husband, Tom, and American Horse to proceed without tribal funding. They needed a new model. What they drummed up carried them back to the past: Historically, the Oglala Lakota tribe was organized into small, decentralized bands called tiospayes. Within each tiospaye, as many as 14 related families shared land and lived communally. In 1996, the three set out to form a landowner cooperative modeled after the tiospaye system.

With money from a world hunger organization, Share Our Strength, they created the Slim Butte Land Use Association. The collective, managed by consensus, pools members' resources to buy tractors and other farm machinery.

"We want to be able to stand up and say 'We don't depend on federal money or tribal money for anything,' " says Afraid of Bear-Cook.

The association also provides technical support and organization to help Indians get their land back. Most land on the Pine Ridge Reservation is leased by the federal government to non-Indian ranchers (HCN, 8/3/98: Tribes reclaim stolen lands). To reclaim their land, tribal members must provide the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs with signatures of consent from every other family member who also is heir to the land - often as many as 150 people. Cook says this system prevents Indians from using their own land. But the land-use association has made progress: There are only three signatures left to collect for their collective 100-acre parcel.

More important, says American Horse, is that the land-use association is resurrecting tradition. American Horse hurries to his car and retrieves a plastic blue file box. Inside is a wrinkled photocopy of a tribal treaty, a map of tribal land allotments, newspaper clippings, and a photo of his late grandfather, Chief American Horse. A great warrior in the Battle of Little Big Horn against General George Armstrong Custer, the chief stares stonily out of the fading image, surrounded by his wives and children.

"Handsome, isn't he? Do you see the resemblance?" American Horse asks, grinning. He stands in the windblown field a few miles from the hemp house, where the land association planted hemp two summers ago. It is covered with dead volunteer sunflowers.

"(The Association) is a way to get back to our Indian-ness," says American Horse. "We have to stick together, because otherwise we're going out of existence and we're not Indians any more."

If the tiospaye model takes root, he says, it could steer a new course, away from nearly a century of federal Indian policy that has tried to bury traditional Indian governments.

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Congress created a series of policies that eroded tribal power. By 1930, tribes could no longer make treaties with the federal government, collectively manage their land or speak their native languages (HCN, 1/21/02: Finding the words).

"Due to these laws, most tribes' traditional governments had become weaker," says Frank Pommersheim, a professor of Indian Law at the University of South Dakota. "Local (Bureau of Indian Affairs) superintendents saw the reservations they oversaw as their own personal fiefdoms. There were tremendous federal abuses."

Pommersheim recounts the story of a reservation superintendent in Washington state, who, when asked what the judicial system was like there, answered, "I am the Supreme Court on this reservation."

To help tribes govern themselves, John Collier, commissioner of Indian Affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, convinced Congress in 1934 to pass the Indian Reorganization Act. It created a boilerplate Indian government which echoed the federal government by centralizing power in an elected president, vice president and a legislature, or tribal council, composed of regional representatives. Despite his good intentions, many tribes now view Collier's action as the final push that sent tribal sovereignty tumbling nearly beyond reach.

For tribes like the Apache, that traditionally had centralized governments, the Collier model worked, but it didn't represent the cultural traditions of most.

"(The new) tribal constitutions weren't culturally sensitive," says Pommersheim. "They basically dispossessed a vital traditional government and delegitimized the new government among many grassroots people."

For both the Oglala Lakota and Arizona's Hopi, this new government was about as unlike traditional structure as possible. Historically, these cultures would never give authority to one representative; Oglala were governed by a council of clan leaders, medicine men and warriors. To protest the new government, the overwhelming majority of eligible Oglala Lakota voters boycotted the election to institute the Indian Reorganization Act - an action that, within Lakota culture, equals a negative vote. Still, the federal government tallied the ballots, and in 1934, a 1 percent majority elected the new government.

In addition to now having an unworkable political structure, tribes continued to have no authority, with BIA officials in control of tribal financial affairs. Bureau superintendents could veto any legislation created by the tribal council, and even lawyers selected to represent the tribe required an endorsement from the secretary of Interior. As historian Alvin M. Josephy Jr. notes, reservation policies were created in Washington, D.C., by Congress and then imposed by regional BIA officials, effectively keeping decision-making out of Indians' hands for decades.

"The superintendent needed compliant Indians with whom to work, and he intruded on intertribal political affairs to support their election," writes Josephy in his book, Now That the Buffalo's Gone. "Those who held office found it beneficial and worthwhile personally to satisfy the BIA, and became increasingly dependent on, and responsible to, the superintendent and less responsive or accountable to the membership of the tribe."

Nearly 40 years after the passage of the Reorganization Act, corruption continued to be the norm for Pine Ridge politics. Richard Wilson, a man with a penchant for alcohol and dark sunglasses, was elected as tribal president in 1972, after a campaign in which he was accused of buying hundreds of votes with drinks and favors. Once in office, he fired a slew of experienced staff, and hired relatives and friends.

Tom Cook remembers Wilson as a tyrant. As a young reporter for the American Indian Press Association, Cook, a Cherokee, asked Wilson for an interview. Instead, the chairman had him arrested for being a non-tribal member on the reservation.

"At 1 o'clock in the morning, I was arrested, taken out into the badlands and dropped off in a blizzard," says Cook. "Oh, it was cutthroat."

Inspired by a growing national Native American empowerment movement, young activists like Loretta Afraid of Bear and Tom Cook fought back. Working with traditional tribal elders, they demanded Wilson's resignation; three council members called for his impeachment. But the judge who presided over the impeachment trial was a Wilson appointee, and did not impeach the chairman.

Outraged, the traditional tribal leaders rallied the activists who had formed the American Indian Movement and declared war on the tribal government. This was the fuse that lit the infamous Wounded Knee struggle in 1973: a 71-day standoff between armed traditionalists holed up in a bunker, and 300 federal marshals, that left people dead on both sides. In the end, the traditional leaders met with federal officials in two school buses parked near the bunker, to work out an agreement. The standoff ended, but little changed.

Since Wounded Knee, efforts to reinstate traditional tiospaye governments have been "on-again, off-again, on-again," says historian Josephy. As recently as last summer, the tribal government was under siege.

Two years before, tribal members were outraged that the tribal treasurer, appointed by the tribal council, had transferred more than $1 million from the rural water supply program into an unaccounted general slush fund. On Jan. 16, 2000, led by activists calling themselves the Grass Roots Oyate, over 300 Lakota set up camp in the tribe's Red Cloud building.

"It was crowded. People brought food and sleeping bags and we set up all over the front lobby," says Anita Ecoffey, a member of Grass Roots Oyate. "There was so much power in the building that night. It was amazing how many people came out; what that was telling us was that they wanted a change."

Like the hemp growers, the Oyate activists are traditionalists who want to reform government. Unlike the Slim Butte tiospaye, the Oyate use direct action. The activists stayed in the building for over 18 months. When a new election occurred a year later, every candidate that campaigned on the constitutional revisions demanded by the Oyate was elected. After that, the activists slowly disbanded, and last fall, tribal officials moved back into the Red Cloud building. Now a joint committee of Oyate members and council members have drafted seven constitutional revisions, including measures to extend the current two-year term for elected officials, to separate the judicial system from the administration, and to draft a bill of rights and ethical standards. While these provisions wouldn't give tiospaye clan leaders power, the activists say the reforms are a good first step.

But, says Ecoffey, things still look bleak. Now that the council members have been elected, they are afraid to relinquish some of their authority, and are delaying a vote on the new reforms. The council continues to meet in Rapid City - an hour and a half from the reservation - and the majority of the tribe lacks gas money for the drive.

"We're beating our head against the wall, but we keep hoping we'll find a crack in there somewhere," says Ecoffey. "It's so frustrating. People keep saying, 'OK, what's the next building we can go take over?' "

Although the government has now returned to the Red Cloud building, when I visited Pine Ridge in September, the president and vice president were still working in the old hospital, a crumbling building that sits like a haunted house atop a hill. I was ushered into Vice President Theresa Two Bulls' office, a small room created by thin wood panels.

While Two Bulls agrees the current system isn't working, she says the Oyate activists aren't thinking about the good of the tribe.

"The only way to correct this dysfunction is if we all work together," says Two Bulls, her head tilted at a sympathetic angle. "My main concern is the people; that's what I have in my heart."

To create better communication between the government and the people, she conducts a weekly call-in show on the tribal radio station. Both on the air and in her office, she remains adamant that scrapping the current system and re-establishing tiospaye systems doesn't make sense.

"Nobody has any idea what traditional government means any more," agrees President John Yellow Bird Steele. He has served as a tribal politician for nearly 30 years, and is the only president to be elected three times. "When we were roaming bands of hunters, tiospayes made sense, but now (traditional family groups) are split up across the reservation because of jobs and the clustered federal housing."

The government structure is not to blame for the ailing economy, says Steele. The bigger problem, he says, is that the reservation lacks the roads, railroad lines, telecommunications, and water and sewage systems needed for economic development such as a hemp-products factory. Steele faults the federal government for neglecting to build infrastructure on the reservation.

"It's no surprise that the three poorest places in the country are reservations (Cheyenne River, Rosebud and Pine Ridge)," he says. "The federal government built up Japan; it built up Germany; now, they're going to build up Afghanistan. They owe us some help."

Needing financial aide from the federal government isn't a bad thing, says Cora Jones, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Great Plains Region.

"It's not only Indians in the country that are dependent on the federal government," says Jones, who grew up on Nebraska's Santee Sioux Reservation. "Look at farmers who count on subsidies."

While Jones is careful not to voice an opinion about the current tribal government at Pine Ridge, she says the federal government is critical to helping the tribe become economically viable.

"There are many Indians on Pine Ridge who are smart and have great ideas and initiative, but they still need funds for start-up costs and technical assistance," says Jones. "We're pushing to get more money into economic development projects."

Money is only part of the problem, counters Stephen Cornell, co-founder of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development and director of the University of Arizona Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy. Cornell and his colleagues have spent the last 15 years studying economic development on 67 Indian reservations. They've concluded that dysfunctional government, not a lack of natural or financial resources, is the real limiting factor to economic success.

"Potential investors need to know that the rules for how the playing field is organized are not going to change," says Cornell. "In a situation where the rules are highly politicized, the situation is extremely tricky."

On Pine Ridge, Cornell says, constitutional reforms like the one the Oyate activists are pushing for is key. Furthermore, economic projects should also resonate culturally. His research shows that on Pine Ridge, economic initiatives would be more likely to flourish if they were created and run by local communities, an echo of the traditional decentralized governments.

Under Cornell's paradigm, the hemp project should be a success story. But it isn't and it may never be. Despite the tiospaye's attempts to be independent of tribal governments and to lead by example, the hemp project is going nowhere.

The Slim Butte Land Use Association wants Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., to propose legislation that would change federal drug laws to allow the Lakota to grow hemp. But "in the panorama of issues facing Indian Country like health care and education, I can't imagine that's a priority," says Paul Moorehead of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that Sen. Campbell vice-chairs. Without a new law, the land-use association needs to depend on grants and donated hemp materials from Canada. Last fall, it ran out of money, and all new projects are on hold.

Even the hemp house has been a disappointment. In March, months after my visit, the Afraid of Bears haven't moved in. They are waiting for the tribal government to install a long-delayed water and sewage line.

Still, the hemp effort is critical, says Terry Janis, director of the Montana-based Indian Law Resource Center and an HCN board member.

"Strategically, politically, this project may not work, but it's important to make the effort," says Janis, who grew up on Pine Ridge. "Practicing our sovereignty as individuals defines our sovereignty as a nation. What (they) are doing is the very essence of what it means to be Lakota."

In some ways, both the Oyate and the hemp growers' push for tiospayes is working. Their persistent agitation against the current system inspires others on the reservation to reconnect with their traditional clans. A group in another region of the reservation has resurrected their family-based tiospaye. The more tiospayes, the more pressure on the current tribal administration to implement constitutional reform that recognizes traditional governments. Some say this change is inevitable.

"The United States will only deal with an elected government; it will never deal with people picked by the tiospaye, but the overlay of the two structures is coming," says David Melmer, an Indian Country Today reporter who has covered Pine Ridge for several decades. "Eventually, the tiospaye leaders will be important consultants to the elected government."

Loretta Afraid of Bear-Cook looks out over the windswept plains and smiles stubbornly.

"This is the way to change tribal government," she says. "Do things on your own and don't wait for people to help you. I don't see change happening any faster than this."

Rebecca Clarren is the associate editor of High Country News.


  • Slim Butte Land Use Association, 308/432-2290, [email protected];
  • Oglala Lakota tribal office, John Steele, 605/867-6210;
  • Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, 617/496-6632,
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