Alex White Plume, an Oglala Lakota elder, started growing hemp in 2000 on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, but the DEA raided the field and destroyed the plants. (Hempsters LLC)

Before it was legal: Hemp farmer’s fight to grow crop draws admiration

Alex White Plume is an elder of the Oglala Lakota tribe and an icon of the contemporary American industrial hemp movement.

Due to civil action by the Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. District Attorney, White Plume is now barred for life by the federal government from cultivating and processing hemp. But this Indian farmer once hoped that the crop would save his family from a lifetime of poverty and violence — the daily reality for people on his tribe’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

“The children of Pine Ridge have to deal with a lot of violence and alcoholism and abuse,” National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey said after he first visited the reservation in 2005 to document what he called “a story about genocide” unfolding in a “prisoner of war camp.”

Of the more than 3,140 counties throughout the United States, those that encompass Pine Ridge are among the poorest in the nation, according to government studies. Eighty percent of the residents are unemployed in an area where the annual per capita income is just over $6,000.

White Plume is in his 60s, which is especially notable as the infant mortality rate at Pine Ridge is five times the national average, and the adult life expectancy is about 50 years old.

He rarely ventures away from his ancestral homeland. But this U.S. Army veteran and former tribal official who once went head-to-head with the Drug Enforcement Administration over his right to cultivate low-THC hemp on “sovereign” reservation land, will travel this week to attend Grow Hemp Colorado’s 2014 Industrial Hemp Awards & Festival on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 4-5.

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His attendance at the Colorado hemp event is a chance to engage with this state’s cannabis-industry entrepreneurs, and to be honored by them.

Speaking recently via telephone from his breakfast table, White Plume likened the experience of watching the preliminary return of a legal hemp industry in the United States to the old story of The Little Match Girl standing out in the cold, sick and hungry, while so many others fill their bellies.

The Cannabist: Alex, help someone who has never seen Pine Ridge understand what life is like there?

White Plume: I was born at home in 1951. Back in those days, very few people were born in hospitals. Four years later, I had pneumonia and that’s when I went to a hospital for the first time. The hospital put me down as being born in 1952, so the government thinks I’m 62 but I’m actually 63. …

My parents used to work potato fields and corn fields all over Nebraska and Wyoming and bring stuff home so we’d have food for the winter. Then my father was killed in Nebraska in 1963. He was beaten by a gang of 13 men, all non-Indian. And my mom was killed in 1967. At the age at 14, I was the eldest and didn’t have a mom or a dad.

A while after that, another family came along and kicked us out of our log house. So we lived in dugouts along the creek. Welfare came and saw that. They intervened and kicked them out, so we got our house back.

All this violence caused my brothers and sisters to be solid. Nothing could take us apart because we’re all we had. Once there were nine of us brothers and sisters, and we have always lived together on our land. But today there are only five of us still alive.

Hemp farming: Coverage of the re-emergence of this crop in the U.S. as federal laws loosen

The Cannabist: How did you get involved with hemp?

White Plume: It wasn’t just my decision. It was the whole family.

In 1998, you could make $30 from an acre of alfalfa, and $15 from an acre of barley. But with hemp and all its byproducts and fibers and seeds, we estimated that an acre could yield $167. So the Tribal Council held a meeting and passed an ordinance allowing for hemp cultivation.

In 1999, no one in the U.S. had any hemp seeds at all. But in a few places, like Nebraska, hemp grew naturally, so we went there for seed. By 2000, we were amazed because our hemp sprouted up 15 or 20 feet tall.

Before it was legal: Hemp radical's fight to grow crop draws admiration
This hemp plant growing near a sunflower is one of the survivors of Alex White Plume’s hemp crop that was subject to a DEA raid in 2000. (Hempsters LLC)

The Cannabist: Then the DEA raided your farm and destroyed your plants. Describe the outcome of that case against you?

White Plume: In 2002, the U.S. District Attorney and the Drug Enforcement Administration sat down with all their high-priced attorneys. Rather than filing criminal charges against me, they sued me in civil court. My annual income is $11,000 a year, and I raised a whole family with that. I couldn’t hire no attorney. I was barely able to go to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. …

(U.S. government officials) just don’t understand that hemp is a natural product. And they really didn’t understand that when I grow hemp near my house, nobody else can grow marijuana within a 25-mile radius because industrial hemp (pollination) reduces the THC in marijuana plants by half in the first year alone. If I’d had $300,000, I could have gone to the Supreme Court and I probably would have won this case. But I didn’t have the money and I’m not going to lose my little bit of land over this.

The Cannabist: Does hemp still grow naturally on your property?

White Plume: Yes. But I’m the only person in the United States or even around the world that has a restraining order (barring me from) producing anything related to marijuana. I’m jealous of Colorado because every day they’re creating something new with hemp and CBD (or cannabidiol, the active ingredient in hemp that some users believe has more medicinal applications than marijuana.) I have to stand on the sidelines and watch all these developments occur.

The Cannabist: Do you still believe in the American hemp industry?

White Plume: Yes! Seven years ago, I had three strokes and a heart attack. I was bedridden for three years. I’d get up and walk around for an hour and then I had to sleep for eight hours. It was then that a friend taught me about the benefits of CBD, and (another friend) came here from Canada and showed me how to make CBD oil. He took the leaves off my hemp plants, cleaned them with rubbing alcohol, and made me some CBD medicine that I would take every day. Today I work 10- to 12-hour days on my ranch and I feel wonderful. I believe in that CBD. It’s a miracle that brings people back to health.

The Cannabist: What’s your outlook for the future?

White Plume: My goal is to live to be 100. I’m going to use CBD to get there!

Grow Hemp Colorado’s 2014 Industrial Hemp Awards & Festival is Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 4-5, at 7301 Arapahoe Rd. in Boulder. The event will feature a hemp product market and ceremonies where the state’s busiest hemp entrepreneurs will be honored in such categories as “Best Root Ball” and “Most Acres Planted.” For event tickets and information, visit