“A cannabis company believes the pot industry could save tribal nations from poverty. But many argue it would only make a drug problem worse.” C. Lugar, The Atlantic Daily
“You going to Gathering this year? Most Native people have heard this question. Short for the Gathering of Nations, the ‘Gathering’ is the largest powwow in North America—one of few pan-Indian cultural fixtures shared by nearly every indigenous group on the continent. Thousands of people from hundreds of tribal nations show up in Albuquerque each year to experience it.
Unlike a traditional powwow, where no commercialization is involved, the Gathering is a contest powwow. More than a display of culture, it is a massive, showy, fiercely competitive athletic event. Dancers are divided into age groups and categories like jingle, fancy, grass, and traditional, and are judged based on style, rhythm, intricacy of regalia, and creativity. Competitors are eligible to win thousands in prize money. For many, powwow dancing is their livelihood, a source of joy and community that also puts food on the table. It is precisely because of the Gathering’s community-focused nature that the event stirred up controversy this year when its organizers announced a partnership with a new title sponsor: a cannabis company.
A chain of dispensaries called UltraHealth is now in a five-year contract with the Gathering as their primary funding source. The deal earned the event a new nickname: the pot powwow.
UltraHealth’s monetary support might be exactly what the Gathering needs to keep the beloved event up and running. Still, many are skeptical of the company’s intentions. Does marijuana—medical or otherwise—belong at a family event like a powwow?
Duke Rodriguez, the CEO of UltraHealth, believes that the cannabis industry is a way out of economic deprivation for tribal nations, many of which have struggled for generations with high rates of unemployment and poverty.
In 2014, the Justice Department made it so that all tribal nations have a right to legalize growing and selling of marijuana if they want to, so Rodriguez now dreams of building marijuana growing and distribution enterprises across Indian country.
On wide-open reservation lands where some outsiders see a whole lot of nothing, Rodriguez sees an opportunity to strike a competitive advantage.
The UltraHealth headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona, doesn’t exactly scream “controversy.” It looks like a suburban realty company, or maybe a place where you could get your accounting done.
Rodriguez is business casual, too, in his polo, khakis, and full head of salt and pepper…A former CFO for a medical center and one-time secretary of New Mexico’s Human Services Department, he is committed to maintaining that same air of government-health care professionalism with his pot company.
Rodriguez is interested not only in tribally owned enterprises, but also in tapping into the individual Native American market. Understanding that Native culture is rooted in and familiar with natural medicines, he’d like to see more people choose pot as an alternative to pharmaceuticals.
Some tribal nations are on board with UltraHealth. So far, they have partnered with the Las Vegas Paiute tribe, and Rodriguez claims they are in talks with dozens more. ‘There’s no stopping it,’ he says. ‘This is the Superbowl of Indian country. Tribes are leading the way in the cannabis business, and I think people are tickled by it.’
Well, not everyone. Some worry that the presence of pot at a powwow will encourage drug experimentation. Vaughan Rees, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that UltraHealth is pulling marketing tactics from the big tobacco playbook. ‘They’re integrating their branding into the Native American community, and they’re promoting the idea that these products are safe, and something that everybody does, and that changes social norms. That makes the job of the people whose mission to reduce the introduction of drugs or other potentially risky behavior more difficult.’
Rees says that this is the most explicit example he’s seen to date of the marijuana industry advertising to a specific racial or ethnic population. It is something, he anticipates, that will continue. ‘These are the battles we’re going to have to fight as the cannabis industry spreads its tentacles,’ he says. ‘It just makes me sick.”