BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Marijuana companies in California and Colorado have tabbed prominent American Indian leaders from the Dakotas to help prod tribes across the nation into the pot business.
Tex Hall, the former chairman of the oil-rich Three Affiliated Tribes, and Robert Shepherd, former chairman of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe in northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota, are trying to recruit and assist tribes in producing high-grade marijuana products.
"Those who want to get in early are the ones who will really succeed," said Shepherd, the tribal relations officer for Denver-based Monarch America Inc.
With 566 federally recognized Indian tribes in the United States, the potential revenue for marijuana businesses is big, even though many native leaders remain skeptical, Shepherd said. Elders especially are wary.
"It's hard to deny the medical properties in cannabis," Shepherd said. "But the federal government has done a good job of portraying it as a horrible drug. There is going to be a huge educational period for tribes."
The prospect of pot on tribal land is made possible by a U.S. Justice Department decision in December that allows Indian tribes, which are considered sovereign nations, to grow and sell marijuana on their lands as long as they follow the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug.
Hall, the former chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes in the heart of North Dakota's booming oil patch, and Tim Wright, president of Redding, California-based Wright Family Organics LLC, announced this month that they have formed a partnership to "provide cultivation, manufacturing, dispensing, processing, testing and regulatory support" for tribes interested in marijuana businesses on reservations.
Hall "has the power of influence, he is a wonderful leader and a wonderful spokesperson," Wright said.
Hall did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment.
"Throughout my career, I have fought for advancement and sovereignty of Indian tribes," Hall said in a statement. "And a lot of that time was focused on economic development because that is what our people need and deserve."
Hall is a three-time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation, which accounts for about a third of the 1.1 million barrels of oil produced daily in North Dakota. He was defeated in the tribal primary last year, after increased criticism from tribal members over his personal business dealings, alleged conflicts of interests, how his administration spent money earned from oil and a lack of transparency in government.
Money from the marijuana enterprises — which backers believe could dwarf tribal gambling revenue in time— can be funneled back to the tribes to address shrinking federal grant dollars, much of which is needed for substance abuse programs in Indian Country, Shepherd said.
Wright and Shepherd said their companies have yet to ink any deals with tribes.
A few other Native Americans also are attempting to get tribes into the marijuana business, but Shepherd said he and Hall are likely the only ones who have held national-level posts with Indian organizations. Shepherd is a former secretary of the National Congress of American Indians and Hall has served two terms as president of the group that bills itself as the "oldest, largest and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization."
Wright said his company is focusing on tribes in 23 states that have laws allowing medical marijuana. In those states, he also sees medical marijuana clinics to help native and non-natives deal with various maladies, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Pot remains illegal in all forms in the Dakotas.
Sam Deloria, board chairman of the American Indian Law Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said he knows of no tribes that have successfully started a marijuana business on tribal land.
Most tribal leaders are split over whether the idea is "marketing tribal sovereignty" or "marketing a vice," said Deloria, member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border.
"Nobody has put together a package yet to get that money without a downside," he said. "In a way I'm proud tribes are thinking about this but I hope everybody has moral concerns. If I were a tribal chairman, I wouldn't do it. It might mean losing the next election."
(© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
for more features.