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Chief Executive Benjamin calls for self-reliance to preserve Ojibwe culture

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ONAMIA — A story of strength, unity and hope coupled with self-reliance was the theme of the 29th annual State of the Band address delivered Tuesday by Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

The State of the Band address was also the opening of the third session of the 15th assembly of the Band.

Benjamin addressed more than 1,200 members of the band at Grand Casino Mille Lacs with a call for a return to a tradition of self-reliance by becoming competitive in the American economy. “Our goal must be economic self-sufficiency,” she said. “I believe the key to economic self-sufficiency is to diversify our tribal economy.”

Benjamin cited the history of the Ojibwe Indians a lesson in self-sufficiency saying that up until 300 years ago the Ojibwe operated in a culture of self-reliance learning to work together to survive. “We needed each other, but we didn’t need much more,” she said.

Years of broken treaties and loss of life, land and resources forced the Ojibwe to rely on others — including government — for survival. In some ways, we forgot the lessons that a thousand winters taught us,” she said. “We forgot how to survive.”

Benjamin laid out a new vision for the Mille Lacs Band that includes moving away from a reliance on gaming entities pursuing new economic opportunities.

“Over two decades of gaming has served us well as an economic development tool,” Benjamin said. “We must leverage what we have learned from gaming and apply that knowledge into other areas.”

Those other areas include a major announcement from the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. Benjamin said the Mille Lacs Band is the process of purchasing two major hospitality entities in St. Paul. The names of the two entities have not yet been released.

Benjamin said once the purchases are finalized the Mille Lacs Band will own nearly half of the hotel rooms in St. Paul.

“We have spent 20 years running hotels and learning this trade,” she said. “We intend to train our band members in the hospitality industry ranging from management to advertising to every other aspect of running these businesses.”

In addition to the investments pursued in St. Paul, the Mille Lacs Band is expanding into a commercial printing venture and plans to open a center for small businesses in Hinckley area.

Benjamin also announced the Band’s strategic plan which includes working under a “zero-based budget.” “We will run a fine-toothed comb through our governmental budget to identify unnecessary spending or waste,” she said.

Other economic initiatives discussed included a redesign of the Band’s newspaper, a better recycling plan for the Band, and economic development that ensures an environmentally friendly approach to business, and necessary access to health care for Band members.

Benjamin spent a great deal of the address focusing on the youth of the band.

“We want to help you plan for your future,” Benjamin told the young Band members in attendance. “More than anything today is about you.”

Benjamin shared her desire to see young band members take advantage of opportunities given by the Band. “It is possible the band can play a role in your life story,” she said. “Your life story is important to the Band.”

Benjamin said one of her main goals is to help develop the talents of the young members of the Band and in turn said she signed four executive orders. “These orders are to bring Band members and especially our young people into playing a role in the governance of the Band,” she said.

The executive orders included:

— A mentorship program created in each tribal department as an effort develop the talents and interests of young Band members.

— An advisory council of Band members of all ages will be established with the goal of providing input on government activities.

— A committee to study the structure of the Band’s law enforcement agency and its methods of criminal prosecution in accordance with the Federal Tribal Law and Order Act.

— A task force to establish the most effective means to carry out all the goals of the Strategic Plan.

In addition to sharing her economic initiatives, Benjamin said that preserving the Ojibwe language is key to maintaining the Band’s culture. “We do worry, because we are losing our first speakers,” she said. “Right now in Minnesota, there are fewer than 4,000 people whose first language was Ojibwe.

“We have a sacred duty to keep our language, our traditions and our spiritual ways.”

Benjamin challenged Band members to help equip future generations with the tools needed to embark on a new journey of self-reliance and economic independence.

“The task of our generation is to plant the seeds of economic development,” she said. “Our job is to create economic opportunity. It is up to the younger generation to dream big dreams.”

SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at or 855-5879.