Image credit: Courtesy of Keri Pickett and Sarah LittleRedfeather, Winona's Hemp Facebook Page

Regenerating a Fiber Hemp Economy Rooted in the Northern Plains and Great Lakes Indigenous Nations

The Anishinaabe Seven Generations and Seventh Fire prophecies describe the present time as a choice between two paths. One path is well-worn, scorched, and leads to people’s destruction. The other path is new, green, leading to Mino-Bimaadiziwin (the good life). Here Omaa Akiing, in the land to which the people belong, Winona’s Hemp is committed to walking the new path. Tribe members are farmers and want to grow hemp. That means there is a need to process it. To succeed, the next step is to build Winona’s Hemp Mill.

Winona La Duke holding flowers. Courtesy of Winona's hemp, Facebook

Who is Winona LaDuke?

Winona LaDuke, a Native American activist, economist, and author, has devoted her life to advocating for Indigenous control of their homelands, natural resources, and cultural practices. She combines economic and environmental approaches to create a thriving and sustainable community for her own White Earth Reservation and other Indigenous populations.

In the 1980s, LaDuke became involved in a lawsuit filed by the Anishinaabe people to recover lands promised to them by an 1867 federal treaty. At the time of the treaty, the White Earth Reservation included 837,000 acres, but government policies allowed lumber companies and other non-Native groups to take over more than 90% of the land by 1934.

After four years of litigation, however, the lawsuit was dismissed. The lawsuit’s failure motivated LaDuke’s ensuing efforts to protect Native lands. In 1989, LaDuke founded White Earth Land Restoration Project (WELRP). This organization seeks to buy back reservation land previously purchased by non-Native people to foster sustainable development and provide economic opportunity for the Native population. It is now one of the largest reservation-based nonprofits in the country.

LaDuke has since founded several other projects to catalyze and advance regenerative economic opportunity, including the Anishinaabe Agriculture Institute (AII) and Winona’s Hemp and Heritage Farm to explore the potential for hemp cultivation.

Why hemp?

Minnesota farmers were once a substantial part of the million acres of hemp grown across the Midwest for the War Hemp Industries Department during WWll. This once-booming cash crop abruptly came to a halt after the war ended, resulting in the collapse of Minnesota’s hemp industry and the mills that processed this fiber. For many years all that remained were wild patches of hemp, undisturbed by human intervention.

The conventional global textile industry now contributes 1.2 billion tons of carbon annually (more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined), creates 20% of industrial water pollution globally (from dyeing and treatment), and relies on present-day modern slavery and child labor.

To realize the promise of fiber hemp cultivation on Indigenous lands as a sustainable development strategy, it is critical to rebuilding the infrastructure for processing the hemp crop into usable fiber. It takes many steps to process a hemp crop from fiber to finished product. These steps include a process known as decorticating to remove the hard outer coating and gummy material of the hemp plant stalk, spinning to turn the fibers into thread, and weaving or knitting to create cloth.

The lack of domestic hemp textile processing equipment for sale is a challenge at any scale, but particularly at the farm and community level. Nonetheless, in recent years Winona’s Hemp has made incredible headway and is in discussions with large off-takers to run a limited-edition line of domestically grown hemp products to prove out a pilot-scale product line produced with all domestic hemp and processing.

Image credit: Courtesy of Winona's hemp 

The goals of this project

At this stage of the project, the main goal is to continue to raise philanthropic capital to complete the pilot, prove market demand for goods, and develop a comprehensive business plan and feasibility study for an investable hemp enterprise on White Earth.

Winona’s Hemp has focused a great deal of time on the development of hemp in northern Minnesota. There are several significant opportunities:

  1. Fiber hemp for textiles
  2. Fiber hemp for insulation and building materials
  3. Fiber hemp for supercapacitors and batteries
  4. Hemp education

Winona’s Hemp also sees hemp in the challenges over land justice, where much of Indigenous land is held by non-Native interests, whether as lessors of tribal land or ownership of land within the reservation borders. Hemp is a vital part of Indigenous future, and this work focuses on vetting technology for appropriate sustainability and replication regionally.

This project also seeks to train and organize a network of tribal member farmers on regenerative, organic fiber hemp growing. An introduction to fiber hemp class will be taught at the United Tribes Technical College and the Nueta-Hidatsa-Sahnish-college on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

Image credit: Courtesy of Winona's hemp 

The project is currently evaluating five possible research and development facility scenarios. Once diligence is complete, Winona’s Hemp will raise mission-aligned capital from impact investors to build a fully operational decortication facility at White Earth, the first step in a vertically integrated milling operation.

If funding is secured, key next steps will be to:

  • Execute due diligence on purchasing domestic equipment to pilot a comprehensive decortication facility on White Earth Prototype, a limited-edition line of consumer-facing products with large brands (i.e., Patagonia) from tribally grown domestically processed hemp.
  • Grade and assess the viability of hemp hurd byproducts to construct healthy housing.
  • Complete the business plan and begin raising values-aligned investment capital.
  • Continue to support other tribal growers to expand the domestic supply of tribally grown hemp.
  • Improve practices to move towards regenerative organic certified hemp.

Regionally, the project works with various tribes, including Red Lake, Sisseton, Fort Thompson, and Navajo weavers.  Seed varieties appropriate for the northern plains region and southwest are also used.

In the upcoming months, seeds will be purchased and developed in seed banks to grow heritage and feral hemp seeds to develop landraces and varieties that tribal nations would use to develop the hemp economy. Seeds will be provided for l50 acres of tribal land and will expand throughout the Spring of 2022 with additional equipment for the production and harvesting of hemp.

Partnerships

Winona’s Hemp partners with LIFT Economy, an innovative technical assistance team, to support the work in fiber hemp. The team researched hemp processing options with many partners, including looking at models in England and Belgium. They also investigated American hemp processors, which led them to Renaissance Fibers in North Carolina. After harvesting this year, Winona’s Hemp sent some fiber to them for processing, and they plan to expand this partnership if funding is secured.

Madonna Thunder Hawk of the Cheyenne River Sioux is one of Winona’s Hemp's tribal growers, along with many more. With decades of organizing for Native sovereignty, Thunder Hawk also works with her daughter Marcella Gilbert to reintroduce traditional foods and organic farming as an expression of survival and empowerment. AAI and Winona’s Hemp also have partnerships with the Rosebud, Oneida, Three Affiliated Tribes, Red Lake, and Navajo Reservation and aims to develop an intertribal hemp cooperative to regenerate Indigenous lands and communities.

Image credit: Courtesy of Winona's hemp

Advancing food systems and jobs

Fiber systems are not separate from food systems, and Winona’s Hemp is exploring food-fiber integrations such as intercropping heirloom Indigenous potato varieties with hemp. During the time of Covid, AAI and Winona’s Hemp focused on localizing the local food systems and the opportunities for continued local food production of corn beans, squash, potatoes, wild rice, maple syrup, and maple products.

With affiliates at Akiing, a community development initiative will restore a regionally integrated Anishinaabe economy focused on food, energy, and value-added production. AAI and Winona’s Hemp will continue to grow a community gardening, food, and hemp farming business.

Many local and regional Native people hope to create a hemp cooperative, including possibly seed sales for specialized fiber varieties and technical support for value-added production for local producers. With the creation of an affiliated Job Force Center in the village of Pine Point, AAI aims to create a small industry in creating horse tack and domestic animal leashes, using its hemp for rope fiber.

The New Green Revolution

The next economy is about cooperation, not competition. Hemp is referred to as the New Green Revolution, and it has the potential to transform the materials economy, sequester carbon and become a significant economy for Indigenous communities. Winona’s Hemp intends to be at the table, not on the menu. With funding, this program can train and engage Native people and grow their economy. They hope to cultivate leadership and hemp.

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