In a casino ballroom, many band members lined up to get sacred tobacco for a ceremony that opened the swearing-in of Marge Anderson as chief executive. Anderson already served as chief executive for nine years in the 1990s, so this process isn't new to her. She delivered a message of healing, cooperation, and trust-building during a tough economy.
"Trust is the reason I cannot paint a completely rosy picture for you today," Anderson said. "The Mille Lacs Band has not been immune to dishonesty or lack of accountability. Nor is the Mille Lacs Band immune to the economic troubles of Minnesota and the nation as a whole."
Over the past year, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has seen turmoil within its tribal government. Tribal leaders removed Melanie Benjamin as chief executive last fall on allegations that she misused tribal money. Benjamin denies the claims. Anderson won a special primary election last month with more than 50 percent of the vote, which meant she didn't have to run in a general election.
Anderson alluded to the controversy in her speech.
"I am here today to assure you that as your chief executive, I vow to restore your trust in tribal government," she said.
Anderson promised to work closely with band leaders and state elected officials to limit the impact of a struggling economy on band members. That includes lobbying at the state Capitol to protect funding for the band and its casinos.
Tadd Johnson, director of government affairs and special counsel to the band, said band members seem relieved that a chief executive is at the helm now, particularly because they are already familiar with her leadership.
"The political time we've gone through has passed and so she was signaling that we're turning the corner here with regard to our outlook and the future," Johnson said.
Johnson said the economic development that occurred in the 1990s with the band's two casinos - Grand Casino Mille Lacs and Hinckley - happened under Anderson's leadership. He said she also showed great leadership during the band's legal battle against the state of Minnesota over hunting, fishing and gathering rights that resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court victory for the band.
"Marge has been a lot through the band, the band has been through a lot with her," he said. "She has shown a lot of leadership in the past that's been important moments for the band's history and this is one of those moments."
Band members in the audience seemed to support the new chief executive, but also raised questions about Melanie Benjamin's sudden removal. Barb Lobejko goes to the State of the Band Address every year with her family. She's confused about what happened with Benjamin but she also supports Anderson as the new chief executive.
"We're not sure exactly what happened and we're still kinda confused about it because we really supported Melanie," Lobejko said. "We're not sure about everything that went on and we're still confused about the whole thing."
Other band members, including Charles Houle, are thrilled to have Marge Anderson back as chief executive. Houle also expressed concern for Anderson, who is 76 years old.
"She was strong when she was younger, but as you get older, you get more mellow so she's kinda gonna have to watch that so that nobody takes advantage of her kindness," Houle said.
Melanie Benjamin didn't attend the State of the Band address, and some of her supporters didn't want to comment publicly afterwards on the Band's political situation. Audience members did give Marge Anderson a standing ovation when she was sworn in, signaling a new beginning with a familiar leader.