Hemp: The Next Big Cash Crop for Tribes?

iStock/Every part of the hemp plant has great market value?the seeds, stalks, leaves and hurd (the woody core of the stalk). Traditionally, Natives used hemp to make medicinal salve, fishing nets and clothing.

In 1794, President George Washington said: “Make the most you can of the Indian hemp seed and sow it everywhere!”

Well, we would if we could! While more than 30 countries have been growing hemp and profiting richly from the sale of hemp products for many years, its commercial cultivation has been banned in the United States since 1957.

But the winds are shifting. With the passage of the Farm Bill in 2014, industrial hemp now can be grown legally by higher education institutions and state departments of agriculture for research and pilot programs. However, it remains to be seen whether the same rules will apply to tribal nations.

Alex White Plume is banking on that outcome. Recently, the federal government lifted a 12-year injunction, the only one of its kind, on the Oglala Lakota Native related to the cultivation of industrial hemp on his Pine Ridge Reservation property dating back to 2000, which the Feds said violated the Controlled Substances Act. The ruling does not give White Plume permission to grow industrial hemp yet, and he faces more legal hurdles. But it is a step in the right direction.

White Plume, considered the first modern-day Native American hemp farmer in the U.S., believes tribes can make hefty profits growing industrial hemp?a hardy plant from the Cannabis family, not to be confused with marijuana, as it contains less than 1 percent of the psychoactive chemical THC, so it can’t get you high. He says hemp can fetch $197/square acre, compared to $38/square acre for alfalfa, and $18 a square acre for barley.

Every part of the hemp plant has great market value?the seeds, stalks, leaves and hurd (the woody core of the stalk). Traditionally, Natives used hemp to make medicinal salve, fishing nets and clothing. “Our women had some of the nicest threads,” says White Plume.

Today, this versatile crop is being used to make many commercial products in the U.S. “When I started 15 years ago, there were only about 638 hemp-related businesses. Mostly hippie stores.” That number has jumped to more than 15,000, says White Plume, who went to Europe at one time to study the hemp industry from the ground up. “I want to prove that hemp is a viable product and we can all make money from it.”

Commercial Uses For Hemp:

Nutrition: The oil from the hemp seed contains Omega-3 and Omega-6?essential fatty acids that our body cannot produce on its own. These fatty acids help with brain development and nerve function, and help lower the risk of heart disease. Hemp oil can either be ingested in capsule form or used like olive oil in sauces, salads, etc. Hulled hemp seeds can be eaten like sunflower seeds.

Body Care: The essential fatty acids in hemp oil help maintain healthy hair and skin. Many personal care products can be produced with the oil, including lotions, soaps, cosmetics, shampoos, sunscreens and lip balm. “I use hemp toothpaste. It tastes good and makes you good-looking, too,” jokes White Plume. And natural hemp oil also contains a healing property that combats serious skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis and dandruff.

Cars: Hemp is becoming invaluable in the automotive industry. Hemp stalks are used to create fiber that is processed into composite material for car door panels, interior parts and car bodies. The hemp composite is more lightweight than fiberglass, so it helps boost the fuel efficiency of cars and performs well in crash tests. Car companies driving the movement toward using hemp in car designs include BMW, Mercedes (Daimler/Chrysler) and Volkswagen.

Building materials: Hempcrete, a composite material made from the woody core or hurd of the plant, mixed with a lime agent, is being used more and more to build homes. Aside from being environmentally friendly, hempcrete-made homes have many other advantages: They are energy-efficient, low-maintenance, fireproof, earthquake-resistant and impervious to mold, termites and rats. “I built an office for my wife using hemp boards,” says White Plume. “They are fire-retardant, so our house won’t burn down!”

Lynn Armitage is a contributing writer at ICTMN and an enrolled member of the Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin.

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