Mille Lacs Band leader: ‘We will be stronger’ after pandemic

Mille Lacs Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin stands outside her office in Onamia in June 2019.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2019

The leader of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe praised her community on Tuesday for showing resilience during what she called “one of the darkest times in modern history.”

In the annual State of the Band address — a virtual event this year — Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin said the past year was marked by the loss of life, jobs and financial security.

“There is no getting around the fact that 2020 was a very rough year,” she said. “COVID-19 has been vicious, with too high of a cost.”

Native Americans are in one of the highest risk groups for complications from the virus, due in part to higher rates of chronic health conditions such as diabetes and obesity.

Along with the disease itself, Benjamin said social isolation linked to the pandemic has contributed to other problems, including addiction and depression. She said the number of band members who died last year doubled from the previous year.

“Hearts are broken from loss of life and so many funerals,” she said.

Many band members also faced job and income losses during the pandemic, and food insecurity was a problem, Benjamin said.

Despite the challenges, she described the state of the band as “still sound and strong.” Benjamin praised band members for responding quickly to the crisis and becoming “a light in the darkness,” continuing to provide critical services like health, housing and education.

When the band temporarily closed its casinos, food and beverage workers switched from serving guests to distributing meals to band elders and schoolchildren, she said.

"If there is one thing we have proven is that no virus can stop us as a band or take away our spirit,” she said. “Despite what we have lost, despite the grief and hardship, we will be stronger and more determined because of this."

Benjamin outlined the band's goals for 2021, including distributing the COVID-19 vaccine, diversifying its economy beyond gaming and expanding efforts to preserve the Ojibwe language.

She said that the band will continue to legally fight the Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project, which Enbridge Energy is constructing across northern Minnesota.

The band also is hoping for a ruling by the end of the year in its federal lawsuit against Mille Lacs County over the boundaries of its reservation in east-central Minnesota.

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