By Phil Hall | February 19, 2008

Suree Towfighnia’s compelling documentary, first broadcast on PBS, focuses on the plight of Alex White Plume, a Lakota farmer-rancher whose attempts to grow industrial hemp on his land at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota has been met with continued harassment by the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Under the 1970 Controlled Substances act, the plant is classified as an abusable drug – even though it lacks the psychoactive elements associated in the wacky weed version of cannibas. The issue here focuses on the sovereignty of the Lakota Nation and the use of industrial hemp for economic development in this poverty-stricken area.

The film’s argument is clearly one-sided in favor of White Plume and his cause, if only because the government agencies are not allowed to discuss the case on camera. However, “Standing Silent Nation” provides a startling view of grinding poverty and isolation on the reservation, where 85% of the reservation’s adult population is unemployed. White Plume is trying to make a difference among his people – he is elected tribal vice president during the course of the film – but his own stark financial problems coupled with the legal concerns facing his attempt to grow industrial hemp provide a personal Sisyphus-worthy challenge that he never quite gets a handle on.

Unable to find redress through the courts, the film ends with a suggestion that he needs to get Congress to redefine industrial hemp’s value and Lakota sovereignty – an action that seems highly unlikely, given the circumstances surrounding this case.

All told, this is a sad and memorable non-fiction feature from a too-frequently forgotten corner of America.

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