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Native Americans Resist Cannabis in Washington

War dancers of the Yakama Nation at the Central Washington State fairgrounds in 1903.
War dancers of the Yakama Nation at the Central Washington State fairgrounds in 1903


Native Americans Resist Cannabis in Washington

The burgeoning marijuana industry in Washington will find no allies in The Yakama Nation tribe of Native Americans.

According to a report by Reuters earlier this week: The roughly 10,000-member Yakama Nation has already asserted sovereignty to keep cannabis outlawed on 1.2 million acres of reservation land it controls in central Washington’s Yakima Valley.

In addition, the Yakama are also seeking to prevent pot cultivation and sales from a 10.8 million acre stretch of the state it ceded under an 1855 treaty with the U.S. government, but where the tribe still holds hunting, food-gathering and fishing rights.

The Chairman of Yakama Nation Harry Smiskin, told the Seattle PI:

“The Yakama have been a major part of the Pacific Northwest from time immemorial. In European terms, since the black robes came to our lands and various foreign ships made it to our waters. In United States terms, since 1855 when the United States signed a treaty with the Yakama Nation that was Senate ratified as 12 Stat 951.

The citizens of the state of Washington do not have the authority to vote what happens on Yakama lands. It is that simple…We do not want our people, or anyone else, to use, grow or sell marijuana on our lands. We have had a long and unpleasant history with marijuana — just as we have had with alcohol. We fight them both on our lands.”

The unpleasant history with alcohol to which Smiskin refers to is undeniable. In addition to the emotional and physical tolls in which alcoholism have burdened the Native American and Alaskan Native populations, this problem has also led to an unfortunate stereotype of vast alcoholism within these peoples.

A 1995 study cited in Volume 22 of Alcohol Health& Research noted the rate of alcohol-related deaths for Native American men as high as 26.5 percent. A 2008 report from the CDC echoes this tragic statistic, reporting one in ten Native American and Alaskan Native deaths are alcohol related, and while marijuana substance addiction admissions were less than half of alcohol related ones, they were still the second highest substance treatments Native American sought out in 2004.

Given this tempestuous history, it’s understandable why the Yakama Nation would want to keep marijuana off their ancestral lands. The tribe has already filed over 1,000 additional objections with state and federal governments against marijuana license applicants.

However, the tribe may find issue with this as noted by American Civil Liberties Union Washington criminal justice director Alison Holcomb in the Associated Press, “The federal government at this time has shown it has no intention of trying to stop the law.”

Smiskin concludes: “I cannot tell you what to do on state lands in Seattle or elsewhere — I can tell you how it is going to be on Yakama Lands. The use of marijuana is not a part of our culture or religions or daily way of life. Nor is it one of our traditional medicines. Please respect our lands and our position.”

The Washington Liquor Control Board has established it would not issue a marijuana license to any business located on federal lands, including Indian reservations. This rule does not currently apply to ceded lands however. The first recreational marijuana dispensaries became licensed by Washington State on March 5, retail stores are expected to open in late June.



  1. Donald Kieffer

    January 10, 2015 at 10:07 pm

    My tribe, the Spokane tribe, started drug testing many years ago.
    Almost immediately, we saw a rise in pharmaceutical pill abuse!
    I asked several young men why they smoke pills, recently, and they replied “pot stays in our system to long! I asked them what they were in Spokane Tribal jail for? They all replied “smoking pot”.

    The strange thing is, we the people voted to allow medical use!
    We even amended our constitution to allow it’s use!
    That was three years ago!
    One Chief uses pot, he also signed a resolution banning medical marijuana. His tribal lawyer smokes pot. The tribal prosecutor smoked pot.
    And yet these three young men were arrested for smoking pot?
    I have smoked pot since I was 14 years old, I am now 53. Not one physical ailment from it, only mental anguish from being treated like a criminal!
    Our people are dying from cancer at an alarming rate, and our Chiefs don’t care!
    Our Chiefs created the chemical dependency and they don’t care! Our current Chiefs don’t care, and they have no compassion for us!
    They are above the laws that they create. It takes a tribe to change the constitution, it takes five corrupt Chiefs to change the spokane tribal law and order!
    Don’t trust my corrupt tribal government, corrupt tribal law, or corrupt tribal court!

  2. Donald Kieffer

    April 27, 2014 at 8:04 am

    Hemp was used throughout Indian country for many purposes, you can not use one tribal government’s denouncement of it as an accurate measure of Indian country’s stance on it’s use! We the Spokane people voted in a members rights amendment concerning hemp’s medicinal value, to our constitution three years ago, assuming that our tribal government would uphold their oath of office! We were wrong! Even though we have oral history of hemp’s historic use, as a traditional medicine and historic plant!

    So, to show our tribal leaders that we will not allow five dictators to force their will on thousands, hemp’s recreational use will be on our tribal ballot this year!

    Over fifty percent of Spokanes support decriminalization of hemp & cannabis in general! But under our constitution, five tribal leaders pass our law and order code! Not a true democracy if you ask me!

    If hemp did not grow wild here historically, why did the Feds have to come to our reservation in the fourties or fifties and spray so much of it’s defoliants in our creeks and riparian zones?

  3. Patricia Sullivan

    April 15, 2014 at 5:20 am

    Please do not disrespect the Yakama Nation.

  4. Brian K

    April 4, 2014 at 4:45 am

    Bunch of bs, bet they were hired by the prohibitionists.. My message to them is if your people can not handle alcohol, tobacco, and cannabis then dont use it, your choice! Nobody is shoving it down your throat, grow up and get over it. Prescription drugs kill, energy drinks kill, tobacco (grown by big tobacco with radioactive fertilizers) kills, alcohol kills, sugar kills (yet the government recommends people use it so they can get more scripts from big pharma), cars kill, you could get hit in the head with a golf ball and die so make sure you wear a helmet golfing, protect yourself people! And my point is.. that Cannabis has not killed a single person to date. Just this week they said a college student went to CO and tried some cannabis edibles and the news was spun that cannabis made him jump off the balcony to his death (the alcohol had nothing to do with it), then later determined that it was the fall that killed him so yes folks you can kill yourself by jumping off a balcony too.

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