Alex White Plume and his extended Lakota family, or tiospaye, are known on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation for the determination and industriousness with which they have faced the hard economic choices imposed by history and reservation life. Undeterred by poor soil and uncertain weather on their land, the White Plumes planted alfalfa, barley and corn and raised horses and buffalo, all of which brought the family little better than a subsistence life and continued reliance on government subsidies. Still, the family was resolved to achieve economic self-sufficiency, thus preserving the Lakota traditions and bonds that sustain the identity of family and tribe.
The soil conditions on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation are poor and unsuited to repeated farming, which erodes the soil further. Hemp is an ideal rotation crop because it has a short growing season, doesn’t require much irrigation and returns nutrients to the soil after harvest.
After much research, and under Alex’s leadership, the family planted industrial hemp, the non-psychoactive relative of marijuana. As Alex discovered, the world is in the midst of a boom market for hemp products. The demand is no less in the United States, with this anomaly: Hemp products can be sold here, but growing hemp is a felony. Alex didn’t aim to challenge the logic of the federal government’s drug war; he believed that
tribal sovereignty allowed him to plant hemp as surely as it allowed Native Americans to build and run casinos elsewhere. He was wrong.
“Silent nation” is the Lakota name for the plants and grasses of the plains that sustained the buffalo herds, and later horses, which in turn sustained the people called “Sioux” (a term coined by would-be French colonizers). But the buffalo herds — and Indian access to the grasslands of the West — all but disappeared as the
tribes were corralled into ever-smaller and more-arid reservations, where government-issued corn could not thrive and grazing lands were too poor to support herds. This is the history behind Pine Ridge, whose name is also synonymous with Native American resistance to American dominance — from the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre to 1971’s “Wounded Knee” standoff between the FBI and the American Indian Movement (AIM) to the 1975 Pine Ridge Shootout — and with Lakota persistence in preserving tribal life.
Inevitably the harsh realities of reservation economies — or lack thereof — are also true of Pine Ridge. Only 84,000 of the reservation’s 2 million acres are suitable for agriculture. Unemployment runs as high as 85 percent. Sixty-six percent of the people live in substandard housing. Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere — 47 to 56 years. But Standing Silent Nation finds both resistance and persistence alive on Pine Ridge, especially among the White Plumes. The family’s land grant at Pine Ridge may be a rough patch of the sacred earth, but they know that to maintain the tiospaye — to remain Lakota — they must regain their self-sufficiency.
Hemp products may be sold in the United States, but hemp itself cannot be grown.
In hemp, the White Plumes found the perfect “silent nation” ally, a plant whose hardiness, utility and low cost had already been proven by the government, who encouraged its growth with its “Hemp for Victory” campaign during World War II. With a short 120-day growing cycle and an ability to flourish without expensive or toxic chemicals, hemp is a boon to the environment however it is used. It is so tough that even on the semi-arid land of Pine Ridge — as events were to prove — it is almost impossible to eradicate once planted. Most of all, soaring domestic and global demand for industrial hemp as forests shrink and the cost of wood rises — makes hemp a “ready cash crop.”
Fortified by this economic logic and believing himself protected by tribal sovereignty, Alex White Plume also relied on some readily available information. Not only does industrial hemp lack marijuana’s psychoactive chemical, THC, its presence quickly dilutes the potency of any marijuana plants nearby. If anything, hemp tends to crowd out marijuana. Yet Alex could hardly have been unaware of the federal government’s well-publicized drive against all things even tangentially related to marijuana. So what happened was both a surprise and not.
As Standing Silent Nation explains, the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance in 1998 allowing the cultivation of low-THC hemp on the reservation, which they distinguished from higher-THC marijuana. In April 2000, the White Plumes planted their first crop. In a surprise attack at 6 a.m. on August 24, 2000, federal agents, armed with guns and weed whackers, chopped the plants down in the same manner they would use to eradicate marijuana. This event, and others that followed, raise a number of questions: Why did the government wait for the first crop to reach maturity before acting? Why did FBI and DEA agents raid the fields at daybreak with an array of armor and guns? Why have they continued to raid the White Plumes’ land, even when the hemp grew back of its own accord, and to bring charges that could put Alex in prison for as long as 10 years? What lies behind the government’s persistent objection to hemp?
Should the growing of hemp fall into the same class of crimes as murder, for which the federal government may override tribal sovereignty? This is the question that matters most to the White Plumes and the other Lakota of Pine Ridge, for whom sovereignty is the last, if much transgressed, defense for Native American rights. Unfortunately, no one from the DEA was permitted to explain to the filmmakers the reasoning behind the government’s actions.
Standing Silent Nation, shot over four years, is an eye-opening account of reservation life that belies popular images of casino mini-states. It is the story of one Lakota family’s struggle to retain tribal identity and sovereignty against the odds of history and current government policy.
“Our purpose in visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation was to meet Alex White Plume, the first known person to grow industrial hemp within the boundaries of the United States in over 40 years, and to document his harvest celebration,” says director Suree Towfighnia. “When the crew arrived on August 10, 2002, and we first met Alex, he apologized for being in a bad mood on such a beautiful morning. Ten minutes before, federal agents had served him with a summons that detailed eight federal civil charges filed against him by the U.S. District Attorney. I asked if we could put a microphone on him. He agreed and we started filming.”
“The film originally dealt with the American farm community’s right to grow industrial hemp,” says producer Courtney Hermann. “As Alex’s story unfolded, our focus shifted. We now see hemp as a vehicle through which a larger and arguably more important issue is playing out — the sovereignty of the Lakota Nation.”