Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin had a main message in her vision for the future at the 31st annual State of the Band address – exercise cultural sovereignty.
More than 1,200 tribal members, community members and civic leaders were in attendance as Benjamin focused “on the importance of exercising cultural sovereignty and embracing Ojibwe language, culture and spirituality as a way to prosper and thrive as a Band,” according to a tribal release.
“Cultural sovereignty is our inherent right to use our values, traditions, and spirituality to protect our future,” Benjamin said. “It goes much deeper than legal sovereignty, because it’s a decision to be Anishinaabe, to not just protect a way of life, but to practice living Anishinaabe, every day.”
A successful 2014 for the tribe was also recognized in the address, as Benjamin highlighted the addition of new Native physicians, a Native Nurse Practitioner, and expanded physician services in Districts II and III, new wrap-around services for Band members and families in crisis, the restoration of Ogechie and Nammachers Lakes and an expanded tribal college.
The tribal police department received acknowledgment for the decrease in violent crime on the reservation.
“Our police officers have a difficult, sometimes dangerous job,” said Benjamin. “To Chief Rosati and the other officers, Miigwech for your commitment to making our communities safe!”
Benjamin also shared a tribal first with those in attendance while addressing the strong and growing Mille Lacs Band economy. Last year, marked the first year every tribally owned business made a profit.
“While some other tribes must cut services when gaming declines, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe no longer depends on gaming alone,” she said.
The news of the day wasn’t all positive though, as the chief executive turned her attention to an ongoing crisis the Band continues to face – Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, or babes born addicted to opiates.
“Minnesota has the highest rate of Native American, opiate-addicted babies in the United States. It was heart-breaking to learn that we are one of the hardest-hit tribes in the state,” said Benjamin. “Babies are our most precious gift from the Creator, and our main job in life is to protect that gift.”
To confront this challenge, Benjamin announced a Band-wide summit to be held this winter, including sessions directed at youth. The Mille Lacs Chapter of Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations (WEWIN) will be organizing the event. Benjamin also directed her Commissioner of Health of Human Services to develop a culturally-based prenatal program for pregnant women and their partners, with a focus on spiritual and cultural traditions around childbirth and parenting for both partners.
“We must, as families, as a community and as a government, unify around our values, our culture and our language,” Benjamin said. “We need our culture in order to live healthy lives.”
She followed her plan with instructions for her cabinet to:
—Develop a program to provide one-stop services for families in crisis;
—Continue working with the state to restore the health of our walleye population;
—Protect the sacred gift of manoonmin (wild rice) from the threat of water pollution that could arise from pipelines, including the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline, and mining;
—Create a teaching recruitment plan to attract and keep the best teachers, especially those who speak Ojibwe;
—Grow jobs and drive economic development across the reservation, with a special emphasis on the East Lake region; and
—Bring more cultural practices into the Band’s government and businesses.
"If we save our culture, we save ourselves, we save our children, and we save future generations,” Benjamin said. “Just like our schools teach students how to study and think in the tradition of western education, we need to reteach ourselves how to think, act and be the Anishinaabe Strong of traditional elders and of our young people who live Anishinaabe culture.”