Nez Perce matriarch Alice "Jeanie" (Johnson) Warden is featured in the premier issue of Tribal Hemp & Cannabis, a new magazine that focuses on hemp and cannabis issues in Indian Country. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

New magazine promotes hemp and cannabis in Indian Country

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- "I was born into this," Mary Jane Oatman says of a life steeped in tribal activism and respect for her matriarchal and family traditions.

As a student on the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, Oatman battled racism and stood up for her people's sovereignty. She remembers her father being beaten and jailed for exercising his tribal treaty rights.

But fighting for what's right spans generations in Oatman's family. Her grandmother, Alice "Jeanie" (Johnson) Warden, was sent to prison for growing marijuana on her family's allotment, on land that was passed down following treaty negotiations with the United States in the late 1800s.

As a third generation farmer, Oatman is now turning her experiences into another advocacy effort. Surrounded by friends and fellow Native women leaders, three generations of the family traveled to the nation's capital this week to celebrate the launch of Tribal Hemp & Cannabis, a new magazine that aims to educate the public about the "medicine" -- as Oatman puts -- that Grandma Jeanie was punished for cultivating.

"This issue is so critical, and it's moving at such a fast pace, that we need single-focused vision and collaborative efforts," Oatman said of the guiding factors behind her decision to promote hemp and cannabis in Indian Country.

Three generations of Nez Perce women -- from left, Judy Oatman, Alice "Jeanie" (Johnson) Warden and Mary Jane Oatman -- celebrate the launch of Tribal Hemp & Cannabis magazine in Washington, D.C., on February 13, 2020. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Oatman, a past president of the National Indian Education Association and former member of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, counts some prominent supporters of her initiative. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) tied hemp and cannabis to the inherent right of tribes and their citizens to determine their own futures.

"Part of tribal sovereignty is deciding which industries to engage in and how best create economic opportunities for your tribe," Haaland said in a video message that she delivered at the magazine's launch party in Washington, D.C., on Thursday evening.

"But the federal laws regarding cannabis and hemp stand in the way right now," Haaland continued, sending regrets that she was unable to be at the event in person as originally planned. "That's why I support legalizing recreational marijuana and opening up agriculture to hemp farming opportunities."

Among those paving the way is the Walker River Paiute Tribe, whose leaders entered into a government-to-government agreement with the state of Nevada to address marijuana on their lands. Chairwoman Amber Torres attended the magazine launch and said she stands with Oatman's platform.

"We need to be able to grow this plant," Torres said at the King Weedy Mansion, the home of a collective that promotes cannabis in D.C., where marijuana is considered legal for medical and recreational purposes.

"We are Indigenous people. We started that whole revolution," Torres added. "We just need the ability to make it happen."

Making it happen hasn't been straightforward for everyone in Indian Country, though. For all the successes in places like Nevada and Washington, which was the first state to implement the marijuana compact model, there have been raids, arrests and threats of enforcement by authorities at every level of government.

"Living in a state like Idaho, we have a lot of work to do to protect Idaho tribes from the long reach of the state's arm," Oatman said of a state where hemp and cannabis are considered illegal.

But the landscape is shifting, at least when it comes to one significant area of the budding industry.. Following the enactment of the Farm Bill in 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is finally reviewing and approving tribal plans to grow hemp.

During the National Congress of American Indians winter session this week, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Stephen Censky said his agency has approved seven tribal hemp plans so far. One one of the first was for the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, whose leaders destroyed their own marijuana operation after being told they would have been raided by the federal government. The state of South Dakota ended up prosecuting non-Indians who worked with the tribe.

“We have more that are in the queue," Censky said on Wednesday. According to the USDA website, more than two dozen tribes have submitted plans or are in the process of doing so in order to enter the hemp industry.

It is these kinds of efforts that Oatman intends to spotlight with Tribal Hemp & Cannabis --- or THC, for short. She is planning to publish a couple of issues this year in conjunction with various events before moving to a quarterly schedule in 2021.

"As Indigenous tribes move forward in this industry, they are taking their community into account and setting the building blocks so that they don't harm future generations," said Oatman, who recently served on the board of the Minority Cannabis Business Association as part of her efforts to secure changes in law and policy that will help tribes and entrepreneurs in Indian Country.

As for Grandma Jeanie, the matriarch who started it all, she proudly graces the cover of THC's first issue. A story written by her daughter Judy, who is Oatman's mother and also was in D.C. for the launch, documents the family's farming roots on their Indian allotment in southwestern Idaho.

"We should be able to grow on our own lands and not have to fear what I lived through in the 70's and 80's," Jeanie says in the cover story. "It is medicine. It helps a lot of people."

And at age 81, Grandma Jeanie shows little signs of slowing down, telling Indianz.Com that she still works on road construction projects in her reservation community of Kamiah, whose name coincidentally comes from the Nez Perce words for fishing ropes that were historically made from hemp. A year ago, she gave her family a big scare when she suffered a broken leg and ribs in a vehicle accident. But all she could think about was getting back to work -- she was back on the job barely three months after the incident, she said.

Grandma Jeanie also was excited to take part in the launch of THC, especially since it was her first visit to the nation's capital. She was as proud as ever to support her granddaughter.

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