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Mille Lacs Band chief executive credits grassroots partnership in fight against opioid epidemic

Melanie Benjamin

MILLE LACS RESERVATION—In her 2019 State of the Band Address Tuesday, Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin spoke of headway being made in the war against opioid and substance abuse, an epidemic that has had a stranglehold on the Band community since Mille Lacs County revoked the Joint Powers Agreement with the Band in July of 2016.

Going through more than two years without a law enforcement agreement with Mille Lacs County had a devastating impact on the Band, according to Benjamin.

"Dealers and gang members from other states thought District I was a police-free zone, and they began moving in," Benjamin said, according to a news release from the Band. "During that time, many lives were lost to drugs and violence."

She reported that progress is finally being made in the war against addiction, crediting the grassroots group Sober Squad for helping to empower Band members in recovery to help one another. Benjamin told the story of founder Colin Cash, a Mille Lacs Band member who started the Sober Squad movement during his own recovery.

"Sober Squad has grown from an idea in one man's mind to become the fastest growing recovery movement in Minnesota, with almost 3,000 members in its online group," Benjamin said. "What began as ride-sharing to Sober Squad meetings has become a statewide network, getting people immediate help when they ask for it."

Benjamin noted that the exact moment when somebody reaches rock bottom and decides to ask for help can be fleeting, and if help is not provided at that moment, the opportunity can be lost.

"What is different with these new groups, is that, just like Sober Squad, they were started by Band members, not the Band government. The power of individual Band member warriors can never be underestimated. We honor those Band members today," said Benjamin.

Benjamin said the last year saw a Band community that demonstrated amazing strength in the face of hardship.

"We saw a community unite around families who experienced loss, surrounding them with love, compassion and generosity. We saw grassroots Band Members come together, unified by their goal of helping those in need," Benjamin said.

"Whether it is heroin, pills or weed, selling drugs, threatening others and making people feel fear —those area no longer signs of power in our community. Those are signs of weakness and cowardice. Today, recovery is what people look up to. Recovery entails actual strength and true courage."

"The heroes are those brave warriors who are fighting addiction—all of you who are taking back control over your lives and trying to help others discover the freedom of life without addiction—and how good it feels to be part of life, rather than just watching life go by. To know the beauty of our culture, of who we are, of who we were meant to be.

Other 2018 highlights include

Elections

"It has been a great year for American Indians, and especially Native American women. For the first time ever, we have two American Indian women in the United States House of Representatives," said Benjamin. "And most exciting, the second most powerful seat in the executive branch of state government is now held by Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation."

Natural Resources

"Our fish hatchery has been a huge success. Since 2016, we have been harvesting ogaa (walleye) eggs from speared and netted walleye and have been hatching them indoors." Tribal DNR staff redeveloped the old wastewater treatment ponds into a fish hatchery. The project received an award for outstanding site redevelopment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Health and Human Services

Other achievements include a dramatic reduction since September 2018, in children being removed from homes and placed into the foster care system, and a successful year for the only tribally-owned in-patient treatment center in Minnesota. "Over 170 Band Members have been helped by Four Winds," said Benjamin.

2019 initiatives

Chief Executive Benjamin previewed numerous initiatives for the coming year, including:

Food Sovereignty

Benjamin directed Commissioner of Natural Resources Bradley Harrington to develop a food sovereignty program for the Mille Lacs Band. "Gaining more control over our food system is an immediate need. Climate change is already disrupting and threatening agriculture in many states—these changes may be permanent. Restoring our Native food systems and Native food trade is an immediate and basic need for the continued survival of all Native people."

Increased Home Ownership

Benjamin directed Commissioner Percy Benjamin to launch a rent-to-own program to help increase Band-member home ownership. "For eligible tenants, every dollar a Band Member pays each month for their housing will go toward their down-payment on purchasing that home."

The chief executive also directed Commissioner Benjamin to give some housing a "zero tolerance" designation for Band members and families who wish to live a substance-free lifestyle.

The Band will also be providing 50 home loans for private home ownership for Band members — an offering that will greatly assist Band members living in the urban area.

Expansion of Ojibwe Language Education

Benjamin directed Commissioner of Education Rick St. Germaine to work with Assistant Commissioner of Administration Baabiitaw Boyd to further expand language programs for children in Districts II and III of the Mille Lacs Band reservation.

Preserving Families, Protecting Children

Benjamin directed all commissioners to work together to make it a top priority to protect Band children while reducing out of home placements. "We need one program that will collaborate across all areas to keep our children safe, and to help them heal and be healthy," Benjamin said. "Family Services needs to be moved to new space, where families working on reunification can spend time together in a supportive, safe environment. I further direct you to involve Band Member input in overhauling the program."

Healing Children through Cultural Immersion

The Education Department recently completed a plan to help children and youth who carry around PTSD, or trauma, from their past experiences, using a therapy model that focuses on problem-solving in a supportive environment to help children begin to recover. A Winter Camp pilot project was held last year at the Immersion Grounds.

Benjamin directed Commissioner St. Germaine to work with other commissioners to formally launch this program for 2019.

Workforce Development

Benjamin directed Assistant Commissioner Boyd to create an employee development plan that is customized for each worker. These plans will include professional development goals that improve skills and reflect the employee's own goals. "By investing in the future of each employee, we will have happier and healthier employees."

Early Childhood

Benjamin directed Administration to work with Education and DOL to develop early childhood programs in the outer districts this year, to provide childcare opportunities to working families.