ONAMIA — In her State of the Band address, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin pointed to positive gains and heartbreaking lows, but throughout, it remained a rallying call for the “non-removable.”
The 36th annual State of the Band drew a number of prominent lawmakers — from Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman, to state Reps. Josh Heintzeman and Dale Lueck — but preeminently Gov. Tim Walz, who arrived as the first sitting governor to attend the event.
In her address Tuesday, Jan. 14, peppered with strong declarations and spots of dry, self-deprecating humor, Benjamin characterized the Mille Lacs Band as a people determined to defend their sovereignty in order to be good and steadfast stewards of their ancestral lands.
“My grandparents are watching me, so I behave better. One day we will meet again and what will they say?” said Benjamin, reciting teachings passed down to her as she spoke to about 1,200 people assembled in the Mille Lacs Event and Convention Center. “We owe it to our ancestors to be good ancestors. As we enter the new decade, I think about that … because that’s the challenge that lies before us — to be good ancestors. We will fight the battles we must.”
Recent years have been a struggle for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, which weathered the worst wave of drug-related crime, violence and addiction in modern band history, said Benjamin, who noted this came after the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office revoked its law enforcement partnership with the band and claimed tribal police had little tangible authority.
From 2016-18, Mille Lacs County had the worst crime rate per capita of Minnesota’s 87 counties. For perspective, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe — a community of 4,600 to 4,700 people — weathered a stretch between July 2016 and September 2018 with 107 documented fatal overdoses. During the year prior to July 2016, there were seven overdoses, according to Benjamin's testimony at a committee hearing Jan. 26, 2019. In 2018, the band filed a lawsuit against Mille Lacs County in federal court for ending the law enforcement agreement in effect until mid-2016.
While Republicans and Democrats have both been allies to the Mille Lacs Band on the federal level, Benjamin said, local officials — particularly county commissioners — have acted in accordance with decades of racism and actively worked to undermine a reservation they deem illegitimate.
“For justice, our rights and the protection of our homeland, long after our opponents are gone, we will still be here because we are the people who survived. We are the non-removable Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe,” Benjamin said. “We will never be defeated and we will never surrender our reservation.”
Addiction and crime are imposing challenges, Benjamin noted, but she also pointed to others, including a shortage of social workers, the dwindling number of fluent Ojibwe speakers, and the impending effects of climate change.
On that last count, Benjamin said populations are shifting across the continent in response to climbing temperatures and changing ecosystems — many for the worse. These changes are no less apparent along Mille Lacs Lake, Benjamin said, which a century ago featured 90% maple trees surrounding it compared to 30% during the current day.
The main difference is the Ojibwe have nowhere to go. This is their home, Benjamin said, just as it always has been, just as it always will be.
“It’s different for us,” Benjamin said. “As Anishinabe, we have no place to migrate to. Our lives are here, on our homelands in each district. Our burial sites cannot be moved. Our treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather are not portable. We need to prepare for the future. The good news is, we have already begun.”
On the other hand, there are plenty of good signs on the horizon as well. Benjamin noted the band is establishing a new clinic and community center facilities in District 1, while funding for some of the most competitive social work jobs in the state was approved to alleviate the band’s out-of-home child placement issues.
The casino and other business ventures have grown by 3% and a tribal farm was developed to offset declining crop productivity, said Benjamin, who also noted the state is taking steps to form a task force to reverse the rampant issue of missing and murdered indiginous women. Bradley Harrington Jr., Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Commissioner of Natural Resources, was named tribal liaison with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. To top it off, she added the Mille Lacs hatchery is at its strongest point in years.
In addition, Benjamin lauded Walz. Walz made the effort to meet and collaborate more in his first year than many administrations would in multiple terms in office, she said, and his track record as a friend of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe goes back decades.
Walz addressed the gathering and said the state needs to make an effort to address decades of generational trauma inflicted on Native American populations.
“Never again will we allow such injustices,” Walz said. “I can tell you, moving forward, this relationship is critically important.”
Update: This article has been updated to clarify that overdose figures on the reservation were provided by testimony by Benjamin at a hearing on the opioid epidemic last year. The article has also been updated to reflect more accurately that a clinic is being established in District 1 with community center facilities.