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Minnesota tribe calls on families to solve complex problems

ONAMIA, Minn. - Citing a continuing war on methamphetamine addiction and other chemical abuse, Melanie Benjamin, chief executive of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, urged her people to use the strength of the family to ''protect our way of life.''

''A tragic sickness spreads to others as we've [sometimes] seen babies born addicted to cocaine,'' she stated as she related the story of a young Ojibwe woman who earlier publicly shared her story of struggle with addiction.

''She is our daughter, our niece, our granddaughter ... she's a part of our family,'' Benjamin said as she argued for patience, understanding and compassion as a part of the war on chemical abuse.

Describing the countless ways that Ojibwe families historically resolved social, political and economic problems, band leader urged a thousand tribal members who gathered at the annual State of the Band assembly to use the love inherent in family as they face the issues of chemical abuse, family security, diabetes and culture loss.

''We have a quiet way of showing love and respect for one another,'' noted Benjamin as she reminded members that the band was engaged in a ''war'' against the ongoing cycle of addiction.

''We need to win [the war] for our kids,'' she said, describing the support needed from families to short-circuit the cyclical nature of methamphetamine and cocaine addiction.

Benjamin recognized 27 band members who were recently enrolled in a chemical dependency counselor training program on the reservation by asking them to stand and be recognized.

''I pledge to you we will beat this problem, but we have many miles to go to fight it together,'' she stated as the counselor trainees stood to applause.

''When times are at their very worst, our families are at our very best,'' she asserted to the crowded banquet hall of the band's casino complex.

''Mother Teresa was once asked what the people should do in times of crisis,'' she stated, ''and Mother Teresa responded, 'Go home and love your family.'''

Contrary to the focus most tribal leaders place on issues of sovereignty, gaming or treaty rights, Benjamin channeled the majority of her address to the social conditions of her small tribe, which is located 100 miles north of Minneapolis in the Lake Superior woodlands.

The Mille Lacs Band is known for its progressive politics and staunch legal defense of tribal sovereignty. The band recently pursued two Supreme Court victories involving tests of its sovereignty and treaty rights, and as a result has paved the way for other tribes to exercise their customary ways of life.

Benjamin listed a handful of initiatives that she and the band's legislative body will undertake in the coming year. She detailed a strategic planning process involving small community hearings or talking circles to generate broad member input into passing laws that deal with health, education, housing and other services.

''We will learn from your wisdom and when the talk is finished, we will pass into law your plan,'' she promised.

At a time when the band is exploring health insurance for all of its members, Benjamin told the audience of 1,000, ''We need a pension plan for every band member.'' She informed the audience that with an initial investment of 5 percent of income, early retirees could earn about a $1,500 return.

The audience collectively gasped when she added, ''But in the future there will be a $1million return when band members retire!''

Other projects included a health initiative to prevent and combat diabetes, obesity, heart disease, chemical dependency and smoking addiction.

''We are going to put our culture force back to work,'' she stated in describing her final initiative.

''Our family members must mentor others in harvesting [wild rice], maple sugar, crafts, and the language,'' she added; ''and completion of a job earns a member a check - this will honor our culture.''

Benjamin concluded the report by pledging, ''We will fight to protect our language, culture, and our reservation.

''Our ancestors were born here and buried here ... our strength is our people.''

Rick St. Germaine can be contacted at