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Mary Jane Oatman on her Career, Cannabis Education, and Indigenous Communities

Mary Jane Oatman on her Career, Cannabis Education, and Indigenous Communities

Mary Jane Oatman is the founder of the Indigenous Cannabis Coalition (ICANNC) and “Tribal Hemp and Cannabis Magazine” (THC).  She comes from the Nimiipuu people of Idaho’s Nez Perce Tribe, and is dedicated to the preservation and restoration of indigenous communities and economies. Oatman educates and advocates for the acceptance of cannabis and natural healing through the sharing of indigenous stories. 

I was lucky enough to virtually chat with Oatman, who was eager to spread her message and tackle issues of cannabis education and indigenous injustice, as well as discuss her career and exciting future plans.

A Conversation with Mary Jane Oatman

 Can you tell us about your home and your heritage? How have those things impacted your career, as well as your relationship with cannabis?

I grew up on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Idaho. Within my family and community, we’ve always had the presence of smoke; it was never a negative thing in my life, from a cultural perspective. It became more of a subculture after my grandparents went to prison for growing [cannabis] on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in the 80’s. 

I went to visit them in prison when I was 8-years-old and, after that, my family’s perspective changed to a ‘we have to be quiet about this’ mentality. My grandmother stopped growing [cannabis] after being taken from her family for almost a year and placed in federal prison. That meant that my family had to find ways of acquiring medicine from other sources. 

For the most part, it was generally accepted within our tribal communities. Many of our elders and veterans smoke. We’ve had a ‘peace pipe’  and a peace-pipe-carrying society for thousands and thousands of years.

What are some common stigmas and misconceptions about cannabis and cannabis culture,  particularly within your community or similar communities?

Within our community, there is definitely a stigma surrounding young people using and having access to cannabis, which people believe leads to an unproductive path. That is a real fear: the ‘sitting around, getting high, only playing video games’ kind of concept.

This kind of perspective perpetuates the negative stigma. However, there are other family systems that have broken away from that stigma to realize that some of our youth, who are generally put on pill regiments to deal with things like Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), can use natural medicine.

I’m a product of that, myself. I competed in sports when I was high school, and put a lot of pressure on myself as a young athlete, so much so that it created an extreme amount of anxiety. My dad was actually the one who introduced me to smoking as a therapy to help alleviate the anxiety.

But I had to be really quiet about it; I signed athletic codes that I was going to abstain from drugs and alcohol. That’s when my dad would tell me “you agreed to abstain from drugs and alcohol, but this is medicine.” As you can see, we need to give ourselves permission to address our own healing, which can be done within family systems.

People may feel like they’re breaking a social norm or focus on the legality of it, but it’s what our people have always done as a method of healing. Plant medicine and smoke have always been a part of our culture.

Other than cannabis, what are some things that non-native and non-tribal people need to understand about these different communities?

Communities are so unique. While we have a lot of similarities, the differences that make us unique are very important. I served as the youngest president of the National Indian Education Association, and while in that leadership position, I had the opportunity to travel to all across the nation and meet different tribal communities.

When I went  to different tribal homelands, it was important for me to learn about their creation stories, because those creation stories are very tribe-specific. Creation stories relay tell us about a tribe’s relationship to the landscape and the environment around them. 

I am frustrated to see this generalization of ‘Indian,’ as if we’re all just one big super-race. We  all have very distinct and unique cultural ways and traditions. I encourage people to do land acknowledgement in order to recognize whose land they’re actually standing on.

You can learn so much more about the landscape and develop your own personal relationship with Mother Earth through land acknowledgment. It allows people to connect with the land, as well as connect with different communities. 

How can people practice land acknowledgement? Are there any resources or particular ways that they’d be able to find out whose land they’re actually on? 

Yes! There’s an amazing website, www.native-land.ca, that tells who exactly whose land you’re on in the world. Through just a search query, it’ll tell you about some of the many peoples who’ve inhabited a particular landscape. It’s a little bit easier for people that may be on an Indian reservation.

Even still, though we’re known as the Nez Perce people, the Nez Perce have so many bands and villages that are all really complex and intricate. For people that have lived around here for a long time, however, they might view the Nez Perce as one big tribe.

When I host meetings as the president of the ACLU, I think it’s really important that everybody introduces themselves and the land that they’re coming from, or joining the meeting from, which is sometimes remote. It’s a valuable practice and ritual, but if you don’t know where you are, it can be difficult. That’s why these resources are so important. 

What motivated you to found the Indigenous Cannabis Coalition (ICANNC)?

I have a background in nonprofits, and I realized that there’s so much value to nonprofits in helping build community. There weren’t a ton of nonprofits working specifically in the cannabis space to elevate the protection of tribal sovereignty, to preserve storytelling, nor to give a platform for the success stories, rather than the poverty porn that the mainstream media perpetuates about our communities. 

I wanted an organization that protected tribal sovereignty through the preservation of indigenous stories. The ICANNC is a unique organization because we not only work on the preservation of indigenous cannabis stories through our tribal communities, but we take them externally to other non-native-serving cannabis organizations; to get them to carry the water of Indian country in the protection of tribal sovereignty; to get them to threaten the rights of indigenous people in their social equity platforms.

A lot of those organizations are doing their work in silos, as well, and not being inclusive of indigenous perspectives. When we enter into that space in those conversations, that’s our opportunity to elevate the conversations about protecting and preserving Mother Earth. Those conversations that are not generally happening in the cannabis industry; the ones about being responsible stewards, responsible farmers, regenerative agriculturalists.

I felt like the indigenous cannabis voice was missing in the main landscape. There was a twofold: we had the negative stigma to end in our own tribal communities about plant medicines, as well as outside of those communities. I want people to see that we are still here, vibrant,  and successful living cultures of today — not just relics of the past.

Can you speak to the significance of cannabis culture and its systems — like its economy and the people that work in that field — within tribal and native groups?

We have seen some tremendous growth in tribal communities through developing their cannabis enterprises. Many of our tribal communities are heavily reliant upon the federal government appropriations process. So, if they don’t get those appropriations, they cannot deliver those services. Tribes that are investing in cannabis economies are becoming less reliant on the federal government appropriations process to be able to meet their social service needs. 

This also allows tribal communities the freedom to break away from some of the rules and regulations that are attached to federal dollars in order to assert different areas of sovereignty within their tribal community in a less punitive manner. For instance, many tribes have been under the belief that if they legalize cannabis, they’re going to lose federal dollars. Some of those tribes have started to create protections for their tribal people within law and order codes, as well as human resource codes, and housing policies.

So in the past, where a tribal community may have made choices in accordance with federal law, the stripping out of some of the criminal elements of cannabis has meant that people aren’t losing their homes, jobs, nor opportunities over the law enforcement’s detection of marijuana. 

The Puyallup nation in Washington state strives to become fully vertically integrated. They have their own testing facility, Medicine Creek Analytics, a naturopathic center for medical access, and they have three operated recreational dispensaries. Through that work, they have been able to build out their cancer research center with natural, plant-based healing. The Puyallup have also been able to help generate revenue for their testing facility, so that they could do more for their community. As a result, they have built around 30 tiny homes to address the housing shortage in their community, all through a cannabis economy.

Are there any other ways that cannabis is related to larger issues going on in these communities?

It’s not always a positive impact. We’ve seen and heard concerns in tribal communities where there is a presence of illegal cannabis operations; elements of human trafficking, forced labor situations, unauthorized farms, poor wages, illegal workers, and rogue operations. 

That has created a fear for other tribal communities, which is why I advocate for the protection of tribal sovereignty. Even if a tribe decides not to enter the cannabis space, we hope that they still have a vested interest in creating policy and regulation to keep bad actors out of their community and finding opportunities like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Air Clean Water Act.

What drove you to create the Tribal Hemp and Cannabis (THC) Magazine?

I was serving on the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), and that’s where I realized that there’s an educational component to the negative stigma that still needs to be ended. After forming ICANNC, I was looking for education and advocacy material, which became THC Magazine.

It was also an honoring of my grandmother and her time in prison. At 84-years-old, she’s still out working in traffic control and construction, but she does desire to cultivate the sister plant again. Of course, she also has a fear of the feds knocking on her door because of those plants.

Because of the contentious relations that we have in a state like Idaho — where there are still so many heels in the ground about acceptance of healing with plant medicines — my grandmother would likely face criminal ramifications even at 84-years-old if she decided to start growing again. It was really important to feature her story in the first magazine.

Prior to the pandemic, I intended to have a live event distribution model for THC Magazine. I wanted them to be out in tribal communities; to go to gatherings, to go to the Tribal Green Symposium, to go to the Native Nations Cannabis Conference, and to the National Congress of American Indians.  After launching the magazine in February of 2020, I realized that I was going to have to come up with a new game plan.

I’m still trying to find my way, but I now realize that there is a huge desire for a subscription-based model for easier access. I have free downloads available on my website, which have grown since the start of the pandemic. 

Currently, it is exclusively tribally-owned and operated dispensaries on and around our reservations that serve as tribal populations. That was kind of a rookie mistake on my part because many of our community members that still need cannabis education are not going to set foot in a dispensary right now.

We need to reach them in their homes or senior citizen centers to discuss the benefits of cannabis, and to find other, outside-of-the-box forms for distribution. It’s about education and advocacy and I am refining how I create access for tribal communities, outside of dispensaries. That’s what I’m working on right now.

Do you have any plans or future goals for THC to spread cannabis education and advocacy?

Yes — I plan to have a more robust digital platform, with interactive, downloadable access to the magazine. We’re a quarterly publication, so we’d also like to provide more realtime news before people get their prints. We’re also starting the “Smoke Signals” podcast at THC, to elevate the stories of the magazine to a global platform.

What sorts of topics will you discuss on the podcast?

The podcast will include conversations that are similar to the magazine, and we hope to bring in features from the magazine to discuss their content. Additionally, we’ll branch outside of those stories to showcase topics like hemp in the fashion industry, mindfulness, self-healing, even outside the context of cannabis.

There will also be plenty of educational content. I want to infuse folks that already have trust and rapport in the tribal community — that are cannabis-friendly — and open up those conversations to help eliminate some of the negative stigma that still exists. We’ll bring in speakers to discuss phytoremediaton and bioremediation, ways to clean up Superfund Sites, and the ways in which hemp is healing Mother Earth. 

We’ll have a chef do an infused cooking demonstration and talk about how cannabis interacts with our bodies in different ways when we ingest it. We’ll do another show to discuss different ways of cannabis consumption, because a lot of our elders come from the ‘wacky-tabacky, reefer madness’ generation.

They don’t realize that there are suppositories for end-of-life care; that there are transdermal patches and sublingual ways of consuming cannabis. We want to discuss these different uses and ways of consumption because smoking is not for everybody. 

Where can Honeysuckle readers find you right now? How can they support you and support your mission?

Currently, we have our website, where you can download free copies of THC magazine. The website also has a support button for people that feel so inclined to support our print publication and printed stories.

One thing that’s really important to me in regards to the print publications is for people to try to seek them out. Another way to support us is, if you’re done reading a copy of THC, pass it forward instead of throwing it away or tossing it on a magazine rack. I love the idea of one copy of our magazine being read by 10 people. I can see how many copies have been sold, but I’d like to think that more people have read, shared, and held our magazine.

I also suggest collecting them. They are gorgeous, full gloss, cover-to-cover, magazines that are embedded in story. The magazine’s don’t have a ton of advertising content, but the advertisements we do feature look like art.

We also encourage people to submit story ideas or to write about tribal perspectives and communities in cannabis. You can reach out to us because we’re always looking to source content, especially from writers that are new to publishing and may want to get their feet wet. We’re happy to publish somebody’s first story. So new writers, young and old that have never been published, are welcomed and encouraged to submit content for consideration to THC magazine.

Tags: Cannabis, culture