Sources: Benally in Pine Ridge, SD

WINDOW ROCK

During a January meeting the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council voted to expel former San Juan River Farm Board President Dineh Benally from their reservation.

“I want to make a motion to have you as our chairman to draft a letter or do a public statement on Mr. Dineh Benally,” Council member Garfield Steele told Chairman Kevin Killer in the tribe’s recorded January Council session.

“The tribe is in no way working with this individual,” Steele said, “have any kind of connection to him, and as far as I’m concerned he shouldn’t be allowed in any of our committee meetings or any regards to dealings with this tribe.”

Another Council member, Ella John Carlow, was quick to agree and said more should be done to keep Benally from taking part in any dealings with the tribe.

He said “red flags” were raised after Benally came to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and wanted to use the tribe’s airport.

SUBMITTED
This photo purportedly shows Dineh Benally, second from left, and his associates on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was taken Feb. 7, shortly before Benally was banned from the reservation.

The tribe wasn’t familiar with Benally until people started researching his background and came upon Navajo Times’ and other news media coverage of his effort to start a huge, internationally backed cannabis operation in Shiprock in defiance of Navajo Nation law.

Police shut down the farms and greenhouse last summer and Benally is under investigation by both Navajo Nation Police and the FBI.

“My phone is exploding with all the stuff he’s done,” said Carlow. “I can’t believe an individual that was busted with a billion dollars of drugs never served a day in his life.”

“We need to remove him,” agreed Council member Cora Whitehorse. “He was removed from his own reservation so he should not be allowed on the reservation either physically or (by) telephone.”

(Benally has not been banned from the Navajo Nation, although Police Chief Phillip Francisco and Navajo Department of Justice attorneys both confirmed he faces a subpoena upon his return.)
But even though the Council voted to write a statement saying they are not working with him and removing him entirely, the statement has yet to be sent to him and whether Benally is still on the Pine Ridge Reservation is not known.

So why is Benally showing up on different reservations after leaving his own in disarray?

Well, last March members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe approved a referendum to legalize medical and recreational marijuana on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

A few months later the tribe passed ordinances to regulate the possession and use of marijuana.

A group of over a thousand members known as the Oglala Cannabis Grassroots Movement has been working to make sure cannabis growth on their reservation is done right and stays within their own tribe. This group was reportedly the force behind the effort to ban Benally from Pine Ridge.

According to informants from this group, Benally had approached tribal members offering partnerships on a marijuana enterprise on Sioux land similar to the farms in Shiprock.

In a phone call to the Times, Benally neither confirmed nor denied this but did say he has many supporters among the Oglala and denied that he was banned from Pine Ridge — which is technically true until the statement is issued.

Benally would not reveal from where he was calling.

“We made national news because we were the first tribe to legalize in a state that’s not yet legal,” said a member of the OCGM, who said the regulations were written so that only Oglala Sioux Tribe members can own, operate or profit.

On the Navajo Nation, Benally had leased land from Shiprock area farmers to grow what he said was hemp — which is still illegal on Navajo without a special exemption.

Police say, however, Benally lured foreign investors by telling them marijuana was legal on the reservation and managed to cultivate at least 57,950 pounds of marijuana worth approximately $1.8 billion on the international black market.

No charges have yet been filed and the case is under investigation.

Residents in the vicinity of the farms had complained for months about the smell, the influx of foreign workers, diversion of water and trash accumulating in the area.

Finally Navajo lawmakers approved and President Jonathan Nez signed a resolution that defines marijuana with THC levels higher than 0.3 percent as a controlled substance.

A person is considered to have committed an offense if they possess, manufacture, transport, sell, use or trade marijuana on Navajo land.

The ordeal pitted family against family, and residents against one another.

The Sioux informants, who asked that their names not be used because they consider some of Benally’s partners “dangerous,” said the same thing was happening at Pine Ridge.

On Navajo, Benally’s investors are out millions of dollars and the newly elected San Juan River Farm Board recently voted to revoke the farming permits of Benally and 31 farmers who leased land to him.

However, the farm board must allow due process for the farmers and avoid any evidence of partiality, Navajo Department of Justice attorney Brian Chambers told the board.

During a Resource and Development Committee leadership work session on Tuesday, DOJ attorney Jason Searle explained that litigation against Benally, his Chinese investors and individual farmers is being pursued, but couldn’t go into much detail because the investigation is ongoing.

“There is a lot of bad actors potentially involved,” Searle said.

He added he believes Benally is deliberately avoiding being served, a sentiment echoed by Francisco.

Benally has supporters on Navajo and also in Pine Ridge.

After the Navajo Times posted a story on its website on Tuesday about Benally being banned from Pine Ridge, he reached out to the paper and sent a letter written by his friends within the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The letter, called a “warning,” stated the article was defamatory and packed with misinformation.

“The article includes disinformation, unauthorized use of photos, defamation of character, irresponsible journalism, and misleading the public on false information,” wrote David Swallow and Peter Swiftbird.

The authors say the letter is “a warning to you and your organization to retract this article,” as well as holding all parties responsible for disseminating false and unverified information.

“Your conduct has created unjust upheaval amongst tribal members and communities, not to mention your unauthorized attempt to meddle in business, economic development and private affairs of another tribal government and enterprise,” stated the letter.

However, the January Council meeting is evidence the controversy started long before the article appeared on Tuesday.

Francisco, who spent months dealing with Benally’s farm and the aftermath, said after hearing Benally was in Pine Ridge, he warned the Oglala to look at what Benally did on Navajo before moving forward with any partnership with him.

“I would do some research of what happened here,” Francisco said he advised the tribe, “with the illegal circumventing of the laws, utilizing land without permission, and the potential for criminal activity to come along with such an operation.”


About The Author

Arlyssa Becenti

Arlyssa Becenti reports on Navajo Nation Council and Office of the President and Vice President. Her clans are Nát'oh dine'é Táchii'nii, Bit'ahnii, Kin łichii'nii, Kiyaa'áanii. She’s originally from Fort Defiance and has a degree in English Literature from Arizona State University. Before working for the Navajo Times she was a reporter for the Gallup Independent. She can be reached at abecenti@navajotimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at @abecenti

ADVERTISEMENT

Weather & Roads

Window Rock Weather

39°
Clear
27% humidity
wind: 14mph WSW
H 62 • L 40

More weather »


ADVERTISEMENT