- Contemporary Issues, Current Affairs, Environment, Human Rights, and Minorities
When the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance separating industrial hemp from its illegal cousin, marijuana, Alex White Plume and his family glimpsed a brighter future.
Having researched hemp as a sustainable crop that would grow in the inhospitable soil of the South Dakota Badlands, the White Plumes envisioned a new economy that would impact the 85% unemployment rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
They never dreamed they would find themselves swept up in a struggle over tribal sovereignty, economic rights, and common sense.
From the hemp fields of Pine Ridge to the US Federal Court of Appeals, the one-hour documentary Standing Silent Nation tracks one familyâ€™s effort to create economic independence for themselves, their reservation, and their future generations.
- Show treatment
When the Oglala Sioux Tribe passed an ordinance separating industrial hemp from marijuana, Alex White Plume and his family glimpsed a brighter future.
Having researched hemp as a sustainable crop that would grow in the inhospitable soil of the South Dakota Badlands, the White Plumes envisioned a new economy that would put a dent in the 85% unemployment rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation. They never dreamed they would find themselves swept up in a Byzantine struggle over tribal sovereignty, economic rights, and common sense.
Standing Silent Nation, a one-hour doucmentary, is an eye-opening account of reservation life that belies popular images of casino mini-states. It is the story of one Lakota familyâ€™s struggle to retain tribal identity and sovereignty against the odds of history and current government policy.
"The helicopters landed two days before the harvest ceremony was to begin," Alex reports somberly. "I said, 'What do you think you're doing?' and a U.S. Marshal raised a machine gun and pointed it directly at me."
In 2000, federal agents arrived at dawn to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. "We invested $9,000 in that field. Our whole family, my sisters and brothers, were depending on that crop to get us through the winter," Alex says. Armed with guns and weed-whackers, the agents descended upon the White Plume land and destroyed their familyâ€™s industrial hemp crop.
The DEA makes no distinction between marijuana and hemp, despite the fact that THC, the psychoactive ingredient bred in abundance in marijuana, is not significantly present in hemp. Regardless, industrial hemp is considered an illegal drug.
â€œWithin our family, weâ€™re going to be doing 12 of the 36 different jobs that need to be done to create a hemp economy. We want to do what American people do. They produce something, they market it, they label it, they make money. Thatâ€™s all weâ€™re trying to do,â€ says Alex.
Alex continues, â€œYou can make clothing, you can make lipstick, you can make perfume, you can make shampoo. Anything thatâ€™s made out of plastic can be replaced with the products from hemp.â€
Hemp is resilient and can prosper even in the inhospitable South Dakota soil and extreme weather conditions. As it was traditionally with the buffalo, every part of the plant can be utilized. It grows abundantly and quickly without chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is beautiful country: rugged and expansive. It belonged to the Lakota before European settlers came. The White Plumes are eager to employ their greatest resource, their land, to create a brighter future for themselves.
Debra White Plume asserts, â€œYouâ€™re standing on land that for the past 25 years is considered either the first, second, or third poorest county in America. We found a way to plant seed and make a crop that could feed the economy of our nation, just like the Buffalo Nation did.â€
Although their two initial hemp crops were destroyed by the DEA, the White Plumes, undeterred, plant again in Spring 2002. In preparation for the anticipated August harvest, Alex invites witnesses to the land and sets up security to guard against DEA eradication of the third crop.
Then, on August 10th, as Alex watches his grandkids, the side door of the house opens. "Is Alex around?" inquire two men as they walk into the house, uninvited.
These men are federal agents, assigned to serve Alex with an injunction preventing him from harvesting the familyâ€™s current crop of industrial hemp. They leave behind a huge stack of papers outlining the injunction and eight civil charges against Alex and his younger brother Percy.
In 1998, the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council had passed an ordinance allowing hemp cultivation on the reservation. "The sovereignty of the Lakota Nation is being tested," says Alex, "Iâ€™m not sure if I should even appear in court because then I acknowledge the United States' authority over me."
The White Plumeâ€™s legal battles are in the hands of Alexâ€™s attorneys. Bruce Ellison, the lead attorney, operates out of Rapid City. "I actually practice criminal law and this is a civil case, so Iâ€™m in somewhat unfamiliar territory here," Bruce says smiling. Alex trusts Bruce because of his familiarity with treaty law and his experience handling difficult cases in the past.
To cover the costs of the lost hemp harvest, and to meet his required loan payment, Alex sells off most of his sixty wild horses and any other of his property that has value. â€œSometimes itâ€™s good to start over from nothing. Weâ€™ll build up again,â€ he says earnestly.
After an initial arraignment, the trial, scheduled for the Rapid City Federal Courts, is postponed. The family waits. They prepare for a new court date. But it never happens. Instead, the federal judge assigned to the case rules against the White Plumes in summary judgment.
The White Plumes appeal the decision.
Finally, in 2005, the 8th District Court of Appeals in St. Louis agrees to hear the White Plumesâ€™ argument for appeal in front of a 3 judge panel. The judges appear open to Bruce Ellisonâ€™s presentation. One goes so far as to call the banning of hemp cultivation in the United States â€œasinine.â€
However, five months later, the judges rule against the White Plumesâ€™ appeal. Despite the decision, the hemp plants themselves remained unmolested, browning and seeding, and ultimately volunteering back each year.
â€œItâ€™s not just about our family growing hemp. Itâ€™s about a bigger question about tribal sovereignty. Itâ€™s about treaty rights. Sovereignty isnâ€™t something that you ask somebody for, sovereignty is something you assert. We want our sovereignty,â€ says Debra White Plume.
Alex expresses occasional regret for the choices he has made. "I'm not sure if I've lost my focus, if I've taken the wrong path for my family." But Alex believes fiercely in the future of hemp and the mandate of Indian sovereignty, and on these issues he remains unshakable.
Alex and his family plan on taking the hemp issue in front of Congress.
- Running time
- 53 minutes
- Courtney Hermann ... Producer
- Suree Towfighnia ... Director
- Sharon Karp ... Editor
- Kerribeth Elliott ... Unit Production Manager, Post Production Coordination
- Prod. Co.
- Prairie Dust Films, LLC
- United States
- Years of Production
- Pine Ridge Reservation, SD
- Release year
- Film Festival Highlights: Red Nation Film Festival (Best Documentary, Best Producer, Best Director, Indie Spirit (Best Native American Documentary), Big Muddy (Audience Award), Sedona International (Audience Award)
- IDA/Pare Lorentz Documentary Achievement Award Nominee, Best Documentary--Red Nation Film Festival, Best Documentary--High Timesâ€™ Stony Award,Best Native American Documentary--Indie Spirit Film Festival, Audience Award--Sedona International, Audience Aw
- PBS's P.O.V./American Documentary, Native American Public Telecommunications, Documentary Educational Resources, Prairie Dust F
- Broadcast (Prod.)
- Broadcast (Acq.)
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