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Injustice for the White Plumes MAG
As a rich and materialistic society, America can be blind or indifferent to the struggles of those around us. Among the skewed notions of reality we choose to accept, our understanding of the Native Americans' plight is especially startling. Since the day our ancestors set foot on this land, we have ruthlessly Anglicized them, robbed them of their sacred land and resources, and discriminated against them so relentlessly that today their culture is just a fragment of what it once was.
Starting in the mid-1800s, Native Americans were corralled onto reservations on isolated scraps of arid land. Since then, the voice of their suffering has barely been heard across the vast nation that they once populated, respected, and loved. Gang violence, alcoholism, hunger, and poverty have become part of daily life on reservations. Most distressingly, economic independence is often an unattainable goal for these impoverished communities.
The White Plume family of the Oglala Sioux tribe of the Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota, glimpsed a beacon of hope when their sovereign nation passed an ordinance differentiating industrial hemp from its illegal cousin, marijuana. Their story is depicted in the powerful documentary “Standing Silent Nation.”
Alex White Plume and his extended family first planted hemp in April 2000, hoping to provide a brighter future for their family and their reservation. Alex believed hemp to be an ideal crop because it is robust, inexpensive and fast to grow, environmentally friendly (it requires no pesticides), and has innumerable uses. However, though the market for hemp is booming in the U.S. and abroad, growing this crop in America is a felony because of its relationship to marijuana. But unlike marijuana, hemp contains less than 1 percent of the psychoactive chemical THC and is therefore unuseable as a drug. Furthermore, if mixed with marijuana, hemp dilutes the potency of the drug.
Armed with tribal sovereignty and logic, Alex felt his harvest could improve his life and that of his people. But to his dismay, agents from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) carried out a surprise attack on the White Plume family in August 2000. Armed with machine guns and helicopters, the agents eradicated the entire crop. When the hemp grew back on its own a year later, Alex endured two more raids and was slapped with eight federal civil charges that carried up to ten years in prison.
This unfortunate story of the White Plume's honorable attempt to gain economic self-sufficiency raises many puzzling questions. Why is hemp illegal to grow when it is not a drug? Why was such an array of weapons and intimidation necessary during the DEA raids? Most important for the White Plumes, why does the federal government have the power to override a law of their sovereign nation? I believe the answer to all of these questions is derived from a prejudice of the federal government toward Native Americans. The native's sovereignty is their only defense of their rights, even though it has been transgressed by the U.S. government time and time again.
Although the United States is known to be one of the most profitable illegal drug markets in the world, the DEA deemed it necessary to decimate the White Plume's innocuous industrial hemp crop three times. Not only is the DEA's jurisdiction over the Pine Ridge Reservation questionable, but the agency also could indisputably expend its time and money on graver problems, for example, curbing the black market for cocaine, heroin, and other dangerous illegal drugs.
Growing hemp should not be considered in the same class of offenses as murder, for which the federal government has the power to override tribal sovereignty. Americans have already robbed the Native Americans of their land, their buffalo, and their culture. Must we thwart their attempts to provide a better life for themselves too?
Sadly, few Americans realize that a Pine Ridge resident's life expectancy is 47 to 56 years, among the lowest in the Western Hemisphere, and 66 percent of the population lives in substandard housing. Though we boast about being the land of the free and the home of the brave, we fail to acknowledge that not all who live in America enjoy the fruits of prosperity and liberty.
The White Plume family has nothing; Alex starts his car with a screwdriver, his kids play with whatever they can find (sometimes the skeletons of animals), and the family often lives for months without electricity. However, they are always grateful for what they do have and never cease to persist, even in the face of the toughest obstacles. Alex White Plume and his family are living proof that resistance and persistence are still alive among the Lakotas who are eager to fight the odds of history and government policy in order to maintain tribal identity and sovereignty.
Although the White Plumes embody values all Americans should aspire to, this family is classified as criminals by our government. In this time of heightening environmental crises, the respect with which Native Americans treat the land should be emulated, not discouraged. Currently, Alex continues to lead a crusade for the legalization of hemp. It is a terrible misfortune that such a compelling story is rarely covered in the mainstream media. Unaware and perhaps unconcerned with the dilemmas that plague its indigenous people, America is a nation silent to injustice.