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In State of the Band speech, Mille Lacs leader takes on opioids, lawsuit opponents

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Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin gives the State of the Band address Tuesday at Grand Casino Mille Lacs near Onamia. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 2 / 3
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin stands Tuesday during the opening ceremony at the 2018 State of the Band address at Grand Casino Mille Lacs near Onamia. Benjamin talked about the triumphs and trials of the past year and projected hope for the band in 2018. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch Video 3 / 3

ONAMIA—Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin came to the podium ready to fight those who would poison and destroy her tribe.

She also fired a shot across the bow of those who otherwise might be traditional band allies.

The theme of Benjamin's 2018 State of the Band address—delivered Tuesday to a crowd of at least 1,000 inside a huge ballroom at Grand Casino Mille Lacs—was the warrior spirit within each tribal member. The past year was one of political and civic awakening for the tribe, she said: one of the deepest changes for the Mille Lacs people in decades.

"This is the band's revolution against drugs, crime, violence and environmental destruction," she said. "As a band, we are awake."

She listed the ways Mille Lacs residents took it upon themselves to combat negative influences, from protesting the proposed Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline, to mounting "per cap patrols" staking out drug dealers' homes on the same day tribe stipends are distributed, to the grandmothers confronting dealers on Facebook.

Benjamin devoted the bulk of her remarks to marshaling her forces against the spread of opioids on the reservation. Between July 2016 and Tuesday, more than 70 people overdosed on the reservation and 15 people died as a result, Benjamin said. About 1,850 band members live within the reservation's borders.

"We can, and will, beat this epidemic," Benjamin said.

She noted 30 band government initiatives offered prevention and treatment, including a possible Mille Lacs drug court to help divert people from prison. The crowd cheered when she proposed all Mille Lacs Band elected officials and employees undergo random drug testing multiple times a year.

"As band members, you should demand that from us, and I hope that you will," she said.

Racism in the 'deep north'

In addition to the scourge of opioids, Benjamin reserved some of her comments for a human opponent: Mille Lacs County leadership, and those who allegedly failed to protect the band's interests in their fight against the county. Benjamin said the conflict with Mille Lacs County officials "consumed the majority of my time this past year."

The Mille Lacs reservation sits mostly within the geographic boundary of Mille Lacs County, where county officials last year ended a law enforcement cooperation agreement. That ended tribal police authority on most parts of the reservation to enforce state laws, such as those dealing with illegal drugs. In response, the band sued the county in November.

In her speech Tuesday, Benjamin threw out some harsh words for her non-Indian counterparts at Mille Lacs County.

"The county seemed to think we were afraid of a lawsuit," she said. "We were not."

She asked non-Indian Mille Lacs County residents to pressure their county commissioners about why so much taxpayer money was being spent litigating the matter in court. She said the lawsuit would likely cost $2 million—when the band was providing $3 million worth of law enforcement before things went sour.

She recalled a tribal lawyer from North Dakota had once termed states bordering Canada "the deep north" for their backward racial attitude.

"The title was definitely earned this past year in Minnesota," Benjamin said.

In the past, Benjamin laid blame at the county's feet for the increase in opioids on the reservation. The federal Tribal Law and Order Act turned Mille Lacs Tribal Police Department officers into federal agents, which partially addressed the problem. Gov. Mark Dayton also dispatched Minnesota State Patrol troopers to the reservation to help keep the peace, which Benjamin said she was grateful for.

However, Benjamin said after her speech the reservation was still not as safe as it had been before the county pulled out of the law enforcement agreement.

"We still have drug dealers that are roaming free," she said.

Mediation with the county is ongoing, and the next meeting is scheduled for February, she said.

Beef with the DFL

Benjamin singled out Minnesota's government for what she felt was its apathy toward the plight of the band. She focused her criticism on the executive branch controlled by the DFL, traditional political allies of tribal bands in the state.

She said last summer it appeared to the band Dayton was willing to help them, and he criticized Mille Lacs County's actions. He demanded both parties agree to a new law enforcement agreement—but when the deadline came, he did nothing when Mille Lac County didn't sign, Benjamin said.

"For the most part, the highest officials in the state of Minnesota, including the attorney general, have refused to intervene," she said. "This is an institutional problem."

She noted the irony contained in the fact that help finally came from, of all places, the President Donald Trump administration. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited the reservation and agreed to send in federal Bureau of Indian Affairs agents to help. Benjamin pointed out with the help of the BIA, 40 arrests took place during last month's "per cap" week.

Benjamin's remarks also contained a strong warning for the DFL. She recalled when Democratic U.S. Rep. George Miller warned band members not to let Democrats treat the reservation as an "ATM" during campaign fundraising season. The Trump administration gave more help than state DFL leaders, she said. Then she went a bit further.

"Ever since the execution of Dakota warriors in the largest mass execution in American history, the state of Minnesota has allowed land to be taken, allowed treaty rights to be trampled, and stood by doing nothing while our people died," Benjamin said. "This is not just history. This is happening right now. They are still earning the title of the 'deep north.'"

Benjamin pointed out many offices would be open for election this November, including governor and attorney general.

"We must let candidates know two things: first, do not take our vote for granted," Benjamin said. "And second, the Mille Lacs Band will not be your ATM machine."

Asked after her speech if she felt betrayed by the Minnesota DFL party, Benjamin said yes.

"When you go out and ask for help, and it's (viewed as) not as important as other things, yes, I do feel betrayed," she said.

Rice promoted to permanent chief

Benjamin drew cheers when she announced interim tribal police Chief Sara Rice would be the permanent chief going forward. She also recognized Rice's appointment to the state Board of Peace Officer Standards and Training, which Dayton's office announced the same day. Benjamin said Rice was the first female tribal police chief ever appointed to the board.

Rice's term on the POST board is effective Jan. 14 and expires Jan. 3, 2022.

Rice is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the county.