Indigenous Farmers are Leading a “New Green Revolution” Focused on Hemp

James DeDecker, Director, Michigan State University – Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center Mary Donner, Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians – Ziibimijwang Farm Executive Director and Tribal Citizen

Harbor Springs, MI

When hemp research was first permitted in the U.S. under the 2014 Farm Bill, it was clear that participation by Native Nations was an afterthought at best. Tribes were forced to partner with a State Department of Agriculture or “institution of higher education” to grow hemp for research purposes. In at least one 2015 case where the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin chose to assert their sovereignty by growing hemp independently, federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents destroyed their crop just before it was due to be harvested.

And yet, those early missteps set the stage for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to highlight tribal sovereignty to an extent that is rare among federal agencies when it published its Interim Final Rule for hemp production in October 2019. The new rule explicitly acknowledged Tribes’ authority to regulate hemp production within their territories. Tribes across the country responded to the change by submitting a wave of over 34 hemp regulatory plans to USDA in 2020. Today, USDA-approved Tribal Hemp Plans outnumber state run programs 53 to 42.

Hemp is legally defined as Cannabis spp. with less than 0.30% THC, the primary psychoactive compound found in marijuana. Hemp is grown to produce three primary products including grain, fiber and non-THC cannabinoids like Cannabidiol (CBD). Hempseed is an oil and protein-rich grain with applications in human food, industrial oils and animal feed. Hemp fiber consists of two components, the outer bast fibers historically used for textiles and the inner hurd, short woody fibers ideal for manufacturing of industrial composites and building materials. Female cannabis flowers produce over 100 different cannabinoids, many with known bioactivity and medicinal applications.

Thurman Bear and Rosebud Schneider
Thurman Bear and Rosebud Schneider

Cannabis is not indigenous to the Americas but has a deep history of co-evolution with humans that is likely as old as agriculture itself. Colonization introduced Native Americans to hemp, yet its broad utility and inherent value have resonated with aspects of Native history and culture in ways that remain evident today. With reciprocal relationships at the center of many Indigenous worldviews and agricultural systems, it fits that a plant relative offering food, clothing, shelter and the opportunity to elevate one’s consciousness would engender new Native growers and advocates. As plant-based medicines, hemp and marijuana have both attracted significant investment across Indian Country as communities seek to address historical trauma, health disparities and economic development in ways that are culturally relevant and more appropriate. Hemp also offers an alternative source of natural fibers that can supplement traditional materials. Hemp can be used in construction, utilitarian design or arts & crafts, replacing ash, dogbane and basswood, which have become less prevalent or accessible in some cases.

After 2020, Tribes across the U.S. began working with hemp in various capacities. In our home state of Michigan, Bay Mills Community College (BMCC) and Michigan State University (MSU) received support from the USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Tribal Colleges Research Grant program to investigate the potential for hemp production as a tool for agricultural and economic development in Indigenous communities. The Hemp Tribal Research Initiative for Michigan (Hemp TRIM) project engaged partners at BMCC’s Waishkey Bay Farm, Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College and Little Traverse Bay Bands’ Ziibimijwang Farm in hemp variety trials to build research capacity at the tribal institutions while working to identify adapted and compliant hemp genetics for Michigan. The project team was successful in their endeavor, which resulted in invitations to present at several educational conferences and symposia focused on Indigenous agriculture and food sovereignty, including the 2022 Indigenous Hemp Conference organized by Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm and the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute.

Group pic FALCON 22
Amanda Thiebaut, Joanna Cooley, Kathy Hart, and Elissa Grossman

Known previously for her writing and advocacy work, Winona LaDuke has applied her skills as a leader and innovator in the Indigenous hemp movement since 2016 when she planted her first hemp crop on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. Since then, Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm has worked to change how people relate to the natural world through restorative agriculture based on Anishinaabe knowledge and integrated, low-input farming. LaDuke views hemp as an opportunity to choose a new agro-economic path that uplifts Native people and offers us all Mino-Bimaadiziwin (the good life) foretold in Indigenous Seven Generations and Seventh Fire prophecies.

We call hemp the New Green Revolution, because it sequesters carbon at a higher rate than any row crop, and that’s essential for our collective survival. More than that, hemp represents a crop that can transform the…economy. It's time to invest in hemp and to make sure that Native farmers are at the table and not on the menu. Winona LaDuke
Activist, environmentalist, economist and an Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) enrolled member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg

Projects and practices that bring Tribal peoples into relationship with the cultivation of hemp are emerging, powering interest and building momentum within Native communities. Technologies appropriately sized for individual and community-based hemp operations have become a point of focus and highlight a distinct need as Tribal Nations seek to establish hemp production and processing within their territories. While Native and non-Native stakeholders continue the slow, but necessary, work of identifying effective and equitable approaches for rebuilding the U.S. hemp sector, it is clear that Native people will continue to lead and innovate in critical areas that will give us all the best opportunity possible to walk forward with hemp in a good way.

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