Food & Water featured

The Indigenous Growers Reviving Hemp’s Deep Roots

May 20, 2024

This story was originally published by Barn Raiser, your independent source for rural and small town news.

On the banks of Wounded Knee Creek, a dream died in 1890 in a brutal massacre. Today, 110 years later, on that same creek, a dream was born. That’s the work that Alex White Plume, traditional leader and former tribal president of the Oglala Lakota, and his family began: the hemp economy.

For this they faced federal charges, had their crop seized and saw the frenzy of federal agents—the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Marshal’s office—descend upon them. The feds are gone, but the White Plumes and their hemp field are still here. The dream was reborn.

Cannabis can transform our materials economy and textiles industry, return carbon to the soil, provide sustainable housing material, nurture health and well-being and set us on a path to restorative justice. That’s why we call it the New Green Revolution. We call it the “New” Green Revolution because the so-called father of the Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, an agronomist from the University of Minnesota, brought us a lot of seeds and food but also harmful synthetic chemicals, pesticides and land consolidation and grabbing.

Now it’s time to heal up. This is a story about that potential, and how Indigenous farmers and nations are embracing this new economy.

The word canvas comes from cannabis. Let that sink in. Minnesota used to have 11 hemp mills. Those hemp mills were mostly located in southern Minnesota, the last one operating was in Winona. The robust Minnesota hemp industry was a scaled version of hundreds of years of hemp processing technology, which then added mechanization and paired hemp with other local textile plants, like flax from which linen is made. The strongest ropes in the world, the so-called “hanging ropes,” were made entirely of hemp. The last place hemp ropes were made was at Stillwater Prison in Minnesota. I figure at least one of my relatives made hemp rope.

The Future Is Cooperative Farming

Inspired by the White Plumes and the recently deceased Dakota poet and philosopher John Trudell, I started growing industrial hemp under state and federal permits in 2015, the first year it was legal in Minnesota, and founded Winona’s Hemp. I’ve farmed for 40-plus years and this was a crop of epic promise.

The tribal nonprofit research project Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute, which I founded with a group of other farmers on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, took up hemp research the following year.

Harvest time on Winona’s Hemp farm.

Working in the nonprofit sector is tricky, particularly with a recently permitted plant like hemp. We began to research textile applications, which it turns out is the hardest path. Our interest: What varieties are the best? How do you grow them without chemicals? How do you process them into the durable plain-woven fabric of canvas? With the support of foundations, including Patagonia and the Lift Economy, we began our research.

We began to understand that this is a crop that requires scale. Growing marijuana (hemp’s cousin with THC) can work at small scale, with maybe seven plants for a family. With hemp, however, we are talking about thousands of acres needed to make canvas. To do this, we knew that as Native people we would need to organize Native farmers. Much of our farmland had been taken by non-Natives, and now the smatterings of remaining tribal farmland need to be coordinated.

In 2023, hemp grown by Winona’s Hemp and the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute became what was likely the first hemp bag made in the United States for a generation or two. That bag, a $129 hemp tool bag for Patagonia, is on the market today, albeit with little credit to the farmers.

Making the bag required a multi-state effort: the hemp was grown on the White Earth Nation, decorticated in North Carolina, degummed in Virginia, spun in Mexico, woven in Washington state and cut and sewn in California. That’s a long way for hemp to travel for processing. But that’s the challenge ahead, and the times are changing.

We used to have a robust textile industry in the United States. My grandmother was a union member of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City. About 80% of clothing made domestically used to be made from hemp, until hemp was outlawed in the early 20th century.

In the push for corporate profits, much of the American textile industry was offshored during the latter part of the 20th century. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 1994 to 2005, the U.S. lost more than 900,000 textile and apparel jobs to offshoring. Most textiles today are no longer made from natural materials, they are engineered from fossil fuels. That fast fashion adds a huge carbon footprint to our world.

There is a solution: rebuild the North American textile economy with natural fibers like wool, hemp and linen. It’s time to bring the textile industry back home.

Hemp needs farmers. That’s why we started the Indigenous Hemp & Cannabis Farmers Cooperative, a group of Native farmers from the northern plains. Today we are working to support farmers across the Dakotas and Southwest to learn and grow the crop as we ready ourselves for the hemp renaissance. These farmers are following every trail and path in this country toward finding and owning hemp processing equipment with the end goal of producing canvas at a cost-effective scale.

The future is not competition, it’s cooperation.

That’s right, these farmers want to own the value-added processing equipment that will make canvas, which is used to produce all kinds of items for which sturdiness is required, even the basic home-building construction material, hempcrete. Indigenous farmers like Breon Lake, from the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota and North Dakota who runs Wacin’he Wakan Hemp, plan to grow much more hemp in their fertile soil. Together, the tribe’s farmers are building a processing cooperative.

That’s how it’s done.

Breon Lake grows 40 acres of hemp on the Lake Traverse Reservation, in northeastern South Dakota and south eastern North Dakota. Lake, a Sisseton Dakota Oyate, is shown here picking up hemp seeds in Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

The Anishinaabe hemp bag, from Winona’s Hemp and Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute, is one of the first textile products in the renaissance of hemp, with much more to come. The industry is reemerging after a 70-year hiatus, and, with some good work, this time the textile industry will be equitable and sustainable.

Dakota Hempcrete Housing

The Dakota communities who have remained in their Mni Sota homeland are survivors. Indeed, Minnesota and powerful politicians and the U.S. Cavalry did all it could to destroy the people in the genocidal policies and wars of the late l800s. The largest mass hanging in U.S. history at Ft. Snelling was ordered by President Lincoln at the close of the “Little Crow War,” executing 38 Dakota.

Despite the brutality of history, the Dakota are still here, and they need houses. Every tribal nation needs housing, and tribal housing demand far outstrips supply. Nationally, it’s estimated that a third of our tribal members lack adequate housing.

Over the past five years, the visionary work of Earl Pendleton, Danny Dejarlais and Joey Good Thunder at Lower Sioux Indian Community west of Minneapolis has been bringing the first new set of resilient housing to their community. That’s a model for more communities.

In the summer of 2023, the Dakota built their first hempcrete house, a 1,500-square-foot, ranch-like structure. They worked with Cameron MacIntosh of Americhanvre and his system of EZ Reaser, filling 2-by-12 framed walls with a hemp slurry. Two weeks later, they had a house.

“Everyone said, ‘It’s impossible.’ Even people in the hemp world thought it was impossible,” Desjarlais told a Grist reporter at the time. The pilot project garnered a lot of attention and now tribal farmers are hoping to build a cooperative processing facility.  .

Why Does It Matter?

Concrete is the most widely used human-made material in the world. Each year, 393 million cubic yards of concrete—that’s the equivalent of 91 Hoover Dams. That’s some stuff for sure.

Cement is responsible for about 8% of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, according to Chatham House, the London-based think tank. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third-largest emitter in the world—behind China and the US.

Those emissions need to be reduced and one way to do it is with hempcrete. Like other hemp industries, hemp has been used for centuries as a building material and is now being adapted with a variety of techniques into new construction.

Unlike concrete, which is made with smokestacks and mining, hemp is a plant, and growing it draws in huge amounts of carbon dioxide. By some estimates, one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of hemp can sequester 8 to 22 tons of CO2, and this world needs that. Hemp as a cornerstone of the green building industry could spare a lot of trees from the chainsaw and that’s about life.

Healing the Earth

We have made quite a mess, frankly, of the earth. To use scientific terms, the accumulation of anthropogenic heavy metals in the soil has become a major form of pollution. Hemp can help heal that.

In the l990s, a team of scientists planted hemp at Chernobyl, the site of the 1986 nuclear accident. The term “phytoremediation,” was coined by scientist Ilya Raskin, a member of a team that tested hemp’s ability to accumulate heavy metals. According to team member Vyacheslav Dushenkov the experiment was a success. “For the specific contaminants that we tested, hemp demonstrated very good phytoremediation properties,” says Dushenkov told Rolling Stone.

Watering hemp in a hazmat suit on a Superfund site in Limestone, Maine, now farmed by the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs

Hemp grows quickly and has roots that can grow more than 3 feet deep and it has a high tolerance to different metals, which make it effective at accumulating potentially toxic metals beyond the top layer of soil. That’s why it works. There are plenty of military bases adjoining Native lands. And the U.S. military is the single largest polluter in the world. That’s a pretty astounding fact. So, Richard Silliboy, Vice Chief of the Aroostook Band of the Mi’kmaq Nation in Northern Maine, is trying to figure out how to clean up an old military base, which the tribe now owns. Chelli Stanley works for Upland Grassroots, a nonprofit focused using hemp for bioremediation. In 2019, Stanley contacted Silliboy and suggested that hemp might help heal the land.

They began the project in 2019 at Loring Air Force Base, a Superfund site considered high priority for federal cleanup. When the Aroostook Band of Mi’kmaqs took over the site, they found the soil was full of PFAS, cancer-causing compounds that are so hard to break down they are known as “forever chemicals.”

PFAS tend to build up in soil, water and even human bodies, a process called bioaccumulation. Stanley and Silliboy learned the site was so contaminated that they had to wear hazmat suits while carrying five-gallon buckets to water the hemp. The work is paying off. In 2020, researchers discovered that the Mi’kmaqs’ hemp plants were successfully sucking PFAS out of the contaminated soil. The researchers came back and put in another hemp crop. While the land is not clean, it is cleaner and that’s a start.

Join the Revolution

Darren Klarer (L) and Anishanaabe Agriculture Institute Executive Director Jerry Lee Chilton, with hemp seeds harvested on the White Earth Reservation. “These are seeds we harvested from our field our first time out with the John Deere combine–our field of dreams,” says Winona LaDuke.

Cannabis and hemp are a solution to many challenges in industrial society. Native nations in the Northern Plains are moving towards hemp with the intention of sequestering carbon, saving forests, protecting groundwater and creating a carbohydrate-based materials economy. Native people have vast land areas in the northern plains region where they grow hemp and recovering access to land is an essential part of the strategy. That’s a revolution, and the people who should own the processing equipment and lead are Native.

This spring, the White Earth Anishinaabe will plant 60 acres of hemp on a field they bought back from a big potato farmer. That’s fiber hemp, the stuff out of which you make clothes, cars, housing and more. This is the ninth year tribal farmers on the White Earth reservation have been planting fiber hemp, and this is will be the biggest crop. These farmers are on the front lines of what is going to be the New Green Revolution. “When you go out there in the early spring, you hear those birds and then you get to till up your spot there and make it look like art out there, that’s good. It’s good to be proud of what you can grow out there, and learn from the older farmers and your ancestors” Jerry Chilton, AAI’s Executive Director tells me. “Growing hemp is the future, and we are proud to be part of it.”

From the banks of Wounded Knee Creek to the White Earth reservation, this spring, more seeds will be planted for the New Green Revolution.

Bringing life back to the soil is work, but these farmers are doing it. Fields of dreams, indeed.

Winona LaDuke

Winona LaDuke is a rural development economist working on issues of economic, food, and energy sovereignty. She lives and works on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, and leads several organizations including Honor the Earth, Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute, Akiing, and Winona’s Hemp. These organizations develop and model cultural-based sustainable development strategies utilizing renewable energy and sustainable food systems. She is an international thought leader in the areas of climate justice, renewable energy, and environmental justice. She is also a leader in the work of  protecting Indigenous plants and heritage foods from patenting and genetic engineering. She has authored six books including; Recovering the Sacred, All our Relations, Last Standing Woman, and her newest work, The Winona LaDuke Chronicles.