The idea of plant medicine has a long history not only in Mary Jane Oatman’s family, but in her culture as a member of the Nez Perce of Idaho.
“That was one of my realities: Coming from a tribe that was known under the Stevens Treaties as a smoking tribe, as a peace pipe carrying tribe,” Oatman says. “It’s something I’ve always known. It’s always been a part of the subculture of our tribal community and very strong in the culture of my family.”
Calling herself a “farmer’s granddaughter,” Oatman notes that even growing up in the strict, Just Say No era of the 1980s, she always had family members who had a relationship with cannabis.
“Trying to keep that alive during the DARE era, my parents did a lot of homeschooling, if you will, about what medicine is in our family to try and help combat some of the things we were learning in a traditional school setting,” she says.
Today, as executive director of the Indigenous Cannabis Coalition and editor/publisher of Tribal Hemp and Cannabis magazine, Oatman is dedicated to helping Native American tribes all across the country break from stigmas of the past century and reclaim a heritage that for some tribes, like hers, has an oral tradition of more than 1,000 years telling of how they acquired cannabis seeds.
For example, Native use of hemp for rope was well known, as well as “herbal blends” in their pipes, including the “green smokable blends of herbs” noted by Lewis and Clark after meeting the Nez Perce of the Columbia Plateau, she says.
“It’s been really interesting to dig a little bit deeper into the archives and the historical record to find those little tidbits and treasures of information, because it has been rather controversial, even within our tribal communities,” she says.
Oatman decided to form the ICANNC after noting that tribes were completely left out of the 2014 Farm Bill that began the hemp legalization process. She previously had worked in the Obama Administration as part of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education and when she moved back home, she realized a need for increased advocacy.
“Our vision for creating the Indigenous Cannabis Coalition is getting all people talking about the protection of tribal sovereignty, plant medicines and the reality that many of our tribal cultures have had a very robust relationship with plant medicine since time immemorial,” she says.
Part of the coalition’s mission is to help create a dialogue between tribes to push toward nation-to-nation trade, as well as to bring each tribe new economic opportunities within the states in which their lands reside, often building off of what they already know.
“Tribes across the nation know what excruciating compliance and regulation look like,” she says.
But she also notes the need for education within many tribes about the industry and what it can mean, which was one of the reasons she started the glossy, 48-page Tribal Hemp and Cannabis Magazine, which has printed and distributed 10,000 copies quarterly since February 2020.
“It’s overwhelming the number of stories that keep popping up across Indian country,” Oatman says. “There are so many opportunities for tribes. The sky’s the limit.”