In her State of the Band address, Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin lauded those she calls "new warriors" who are fighting back against drug abuse, crime and environmental threats.
Benjamin spoke to a crowd of several hundred on Tuesday at the annual event, which combined ceremonial traditions with tough talk on the serious challenges facing the central Minnesota Ojibwe community.
Benjamin called 2017 "a year of warriorism" that was a tough one for the band. Opioid addiction, she said, has gripped the reservation and has been complicated by a legal fight with Mille Lacs County over policing authority.
"We faced many challenges but none so heartbreaking as losing so many people to the drug epidemic," Benjamin said. "This was a year of profound sadness and loss for many families."
Benjamin praised band members she said have fought back by holding ceremonial anti-drug walks, confronting drug dealers and speaking out at a rally at the state Capitol.
She also noted how members have testified at public hearings on Enbridge Energy's proposed Line 3 oil pipeline.
"At Mille Lacs over the past year and a half, something has happened throughout our band, community and every district and every family and every home," Benjamin said. "This is the band's revolution against drugs, crime, violence and environmental destruction. As a band, we are awake."
Mille Lacs County terminated its cooperative law enforcement with the band in 2016, leaving tribal officers with limited ability to investigate crimes. At the root of the disagreement is a longstanding feud over reservation boundaries.
Band leaders have said gangs and drug dealers view the reservation as a free zone and have targeted its members struggling with addiction to heroin and other opioids.
Gov. Mark Dayton intervened last fall, calling for the two sides to resolve the dispute through mediation. So far, they've been unable to reach agreement. In November, the Mille Lacs Band filed a federal lawsuit against the county.
Benjamin was critical of what she called a lack of help from elected officials. She warned politicians, especially longtime DFL allies, not to take band members' votes or money for granted. "We will target our support and votes to defeat those who let our people die," she said.
Benjamin touched on other challenges facing the band, including declining revenue from gaming. She said those profits should recover along with Mille Lacs Lake's walleye population, which she said appears to be on the right track.
Benjamin highlighted some of the band's achievements in 2017, including taking over operation of a residential facility in Brainerd that provides culturally sensitive substance abuse treatment.
The band is also working toward creating an Ojibwe language immersion school and developing a vocational program for high school students. Another new initiative aims to help move renters into home ownership.