Several Indigenous hemp and marijuana operators tell Benzinga that a growing opportunity exists, but investing and scalability hurdles persist in several forms.
While contending with state and federal encumbrances, some see a substantial potential to enhance their tribes and Indian Country as a whole.
Cultural and regulatory differences
While many see opportunity with cannabis, sources say it also faces the same bureaucracy the US government makes any tribal endeavor undertake.
Under the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), tribal landowners must obtain rights-of-way (ROW) approval before using their land for various projects, including cannabis cultivation.
Alex White Plume, an Oglala Sioux member and former tribal president, is the founder of White Plume Hemp Company and a long-time activist with several decades of experience fighting the US government for the right to grow hemp.
White Plume doesn’t agree with the BIA’s ROW process. “That’s just ridiculous in the Lakota kinship system,” he said, adding that the BIA didn’t object to his application. “They are not there to help us use our lands.”
In a previous article, Indigenous sources said bad actors and investors make some operators and tribes leery of outside investment. White Plume stays within the community, reporting that he employs 16 to 20 community laborers and dividends to incentivize the work rather than using state-of-the-art machinery.
Rainbow Chavis, CMO for Shinnecock Hemp Growers and HMP LLC said if an outside investor plans on entering Indian Country, they should do so with local support. Steps to ensure local backing include obtaining transparent documentation with worst-case scenario plans detailing how parties can recoup their losses, she added.
“Like any other investment in America or Canada, there are hurdles and risks; we are really no different.”
Views about the plant further blur the approaches of Indian Country and US federal law. Chenae Bullock, managing director of the vertically-integrated Little Beach Harvest, a separate Shinnecock Nation venture said many tribes likely had unwritten rules for centuries.
“I’ll say Shinnecock along with other tribes have been essentially what is considered the legacy market if you will,” she said.
Bullock added that her tribe has used cannabis as part of natural wellness plans that include other foraged medicines and measures for centuries.
Present and future opportunities
Despite the current circumstances, many remain optimistic about the promise of the cannabis industry.
“We have a really big opportunity to create a new wave of economy for our communities, and we should be on the front lines doing it and not getting the trickle-down effect,” said Mary Jane Oatman, a Columbia River Plateau member and founder of the Indigenous CANNabis Coalition (ICANNC) and THC Magazine.
Marcus Grignon, a Menominee tribe member and executive director of Hempstead Project Heart, considers hemp cultivation to be one of the best tools or assets tribes have in exerting tribal sovereignty.
Grignon said his idol, mentor and former chair of the American Indian Movement, John Trudell of the Santee Sioux tribe, talked about the importance of the five points: The environment, economics, climate change, tribal sovereignty and historical perspectives.
“He said if you think about those five points, that is what is going to help bring hemp back to America,” Grignon said.
Tribal sovereignty remains a concern with land held in federal trusts.
“If our elected tribal leaders on the front lines are not consistently advocating for cannabis consistently, with community and from a grassroots perspective, we will be left out of federal policy conversations,” Oatman added.
Such discussions include interstate transportation.
John Barthel is the owner of Cannavisor and co-founder of Honest Cannabis, a firm that provides consulting and advising to Native ventures, consumption lounges and other state-regulated businesses. He’s worked with Indigenous American tribes developing operations independent of state regulations.
Barthel sees ample opportunity, including potentially serving as a bridge for interstate commerce if lawmakers clarified regulations. Under the possible scenario, instead of transporting cannabis from state to state, Barthel said tribes with land in two or more states could deliver one state’s cannabis to the other.
“I think that those tribes have an economic opportunity to help move product from state to state, and I think there could be a toll fee,” he posited.
Regardless of whether that opportunity arises, Barthel said he wants to see tribal cannabis markets explode and compete with state markets. “The growth of the industry is the growth of everybody.”
White Plume offered a similar take: to see Indian Country grow together. To that end, he encourages working with other Indigenous-owned ventures to keep Indian Country revenue in the community.
“We could make some money rather than going in debt buying millions of dollars worth of machines,” he said referring to potential partnerships.