New leaders challenge Mille Lacs band

MILLE LACS, Minn. - After a standing ovation by some 700 band members that welcomed the new Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chairwoman Melanie Benjamin, her state of the band message challenged them to take more responsibility for their lives.

Accountability, government program reform, expanding on the economic development of the band and individual responsibility are the items on Benjamin's short list of things to accomplish in the next year.

"What has distinguished us through the centuries is the undaunted courage of our warriors, both men and women," Benjamin said.

"What saw us through the coldest winters, through the attacks by enemies, through hardships of the ages was the courage of our convictions: knowing what was right and having the courage to fight for it."

The band, with its ownership of banks, two successful casinos and resorts and the business department that supports individual entrepreneurs, has become the envy of many tribes in the Midwestern region.

Mille Lacs was one of the first tribes to sign onto the self-governance program and its government structure is a reflection of past administrations that insisted on accountability from tribal leaders and programs, non-interference by elected officials and partial autonomy for tribal programs, former Chairwoman Marge Anderson said.

Benjamin defeated Anderson last year and took office in July. She was supported by band members who live outside the reservation area and felt they were not being fairly included in the benefits provided by the band. Many supported an increase in a per capita distribution above the fixed $1,500 each band member receives each year.

Benjamin did not campaign on that promise. Her approach was to tell band members who supported the increase that she would listen to any proposals.

"My administration has inherited an economy that is the strongest in the history of the band, but is weakened by business failures and increasing inequities between the haves and the have-nots and deep divisions within our people," Benjamin said.

She reminded the band members and government administrators that too many band members missed out on the "explosion of our tribal economy."

Band commissioners are instructed to include band members in the decision-making process to improve programs and services, she said, adding that public meetings in the three districts on the reservation will be held on an ongoing basis to allow member input. She has held meetings already.

"A government by the people means that band members are running our own government, that we are accountable to ourselves. We need more band members in key positions throughout the government," she said.

Accountability tops her list of challenges and second in line is the reform of government programs - that with the help of band members, she said.

"If a program does not work, change it," she instructed commissioners, "but get your ideas from band members, because band members know best how to solve our own problems."

The act of changing and improving the government and its programs will take courage, something the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe have in their history, she said.

"Let's put aside our differences, stand up and say, we are the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and we are courageous. Being courageous means accepting responsibility to make change."

The Mille Lacs Band has more than 3,000 members. It owns casinos in Mille Lacs and Hinckley, Minn. With casino revenues it built schools, community centers and clinics and has provided employment and financial assistance and advice for band members who wish to open private businesses.