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Hemp on the Navajo Nation: Returning to Hozhó After the Disruption of Navajo Nation v. Benally

Taylor Bingham

Hemp has been explored as a potential source of economic development by many tribal nations. As of March 22, 2021, 41 tribes have approved hemp production plans through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), while an additional six tribes have submitted plans that are currently under review.[1] The Navajo Nation is not among them. Though the Nation began to explore industrial hemp production in 2019, the reputation of cannabis[2] preceded these efforts. Though some leaders recognized that the introduction of a nonnative plant species into the environment should be approached delicately, others saw changes to Navajo Nation cannabis laws in preparation for this development as an opportunity to introduce large scale illicit hemp farming, without regard for its potential consequences.

In my paper, I use the case Navajo Nation v. Benally[3] (Shiprock D. Ct. 2020)as a lens to examine how the introduction of industrial hemp cultivation to the Navajo Nation is both supported by and in tension with Diné traditional law. This case was a culmination of local efforts to shut down illicit hemp farms that rapidly expanded in and around the Shiprock, New Mexico community over the span of less than two years. [4] Dineh Benally, a former Navajo Nation political figure and advocate for hemp cultivation as a means of economic development, supervised the farms and was in the process of developing several businesses relating to them when the complaint against him was first filed. [5] After complaints to local officials yielded little response, a combination of investigatory journalism, community activism, and local administrative investigations led to the Navajo Nation requesting and being granted a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order against Benally and his operation. [6] Though the coronavirus has put any further action against Benally on hold, the farms left a lasting impact on the land, the water, and the community that has yet to be remedied.[7]

I begin my paper with an overview of cannabis law on the Navajo Nation, beginning in 2000 and ending with the most recent order granted in the Benally case in September of 2020. I then briefly profile some traditional Diné legal principles in order to provide a framework for analysis of conflicts brought about by the alleged actions taken by the Defendant in Benally. Next, I use this framework to analyze the Benally filings, focusing on three ways in which the illicit introduction of hemp farming by the Defendant caused disruption to Navajo Nation lands, the people, and the community as a whole. Finally, I conclude by using fundamental Diné legal principles to examine ways in which both the Navajo Nation and the Defendant in Benally could address the harms caused by both regulated and unregulated hemp farming so that the community can move forward.

I was inspired to write about this issue because of the tensions I saw in the press coverage of the case between the pursuit of viable, sustainable economic development by Navajo Nation leadership and the ways the Diné indigenous legal tradition frames the importance of relationships. The introduction of industrial hemp farming has the potential to impact environmental resources, tribal sovereignty and self-governance, and the relationships among community members. If approached haphazardly, as was arguably done in Benally, this potential industry may be doomed to fail.

As I reflect on writing this piece, I acknowledge I am writing from the perspective of an outsider with no lived experience of the Diné legal tradition. I relied on published works by Justice Raymond D. Austin, who served on the Navajo Nation Supreme Court for 16 years, as well as Navajo Nation court opinions to describe the Diné legal tradition and apply it to the Benally case and its consequences. I also relied on coverage of the case by Arlyssa Becenti, reporter for the Navajo Times, whose work provided a window into the perspectives of the Shiprock community as they faced the consequences of this disruptive farming operation. Finally, I would not have been able to reach my limited level of understanding without the patient guidance of my mother-in-law, Dolly C. Begay, who answered so many questions and gently corrected my pronunciation along the way. I’ve learned so much through this experience, and I look forward to continuing to broaden my knowledge and understanding of the indigenous legal tradition as a primary source of law.


[1] Agricultural Marketing Service, Status of State and Tribal Hemp Production Plans for USDA Approval, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/hemp/state-and-tribal-plan-review (last visited Apr. 5, 2021).

[2] Though the terms “cannabis,”, “marijuana,” and “hemp” are often used interchangeably, this is inaccurate. “Cannabis” is used to refer to any product derived from the Cannabis sativa plant. “Marijuana” refers to cannabis that contains higher levels of THC, while “hemp” is used to refer to cannabis plants with less THC. Cannabis (Marijuana) and Cannabinoids: What You Need to Know, Nat’l Ctr. for Complementary and Integrative Health, https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/cannabis-marijuana-and-cannabinoids-what-you-need-to-know (last visited Apr. 5, 2021).

[3] See Arlyssa Becenti, 2020 in Review: Cannabis Farmer Still Free After Major Bust, Navajo Times (Dec. 30, 2020), https://navajotimes.com/2020-review/cannabis-farmer-still-free-after-major-bust/ for a review of the circumstances that led to the preliminary injunction and TRO in this case.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

By Tribal Law Journal Blog

The Tribal Law Journal was established in fall 1998 for the purpose of promoting indigenous self-determination by facilitating discussion of the internal law of the world’s indigenous nations. The internal law of indigenous nations encompasses traditional law, western law adopted by indigenous nations, and a blend of western and indigenous law. Underscoring this purpose is the recognition that traditional law is a source of law.

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