Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe annual event highlights priorities, progress and cannabis plans

Melanie Benjamin outside her office
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin stands for a photo outside her office at the Mille Lacs government center in Onami, Minn., on June 28, 2019.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2019

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin gave the tribe’s 40th annual State of the Band address on Tuesday. The elected leader said 2023 was a year of progress for the central Minnesota-based tribe.

“I stand before you today with a profound sense of gratitude, pride and responsibility as we look back on the amazing journey we have taken together as a sovereign Indian nation,” said Benjamin.

Speaking to an audience of several hundred Mille Lacs Band members at the tribe’s convention center in Onamia, Benjamin highlighted plans to open a cannabis growing facility.

Benjamin said the decision to get into the cannabis industry was not made lightly and that a majority of band members support the move.

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"A leader’s job is to listen to the people. I have always said that band members know best how to solve our problems,” Benjamin said. “It is my hope that this new industry is all that we have promised it will be.”

Construction began last fall on a cultivation facility behind the band’s casino complex near Onamia. Band officials expect to complete the project by late summer, according to the 2024 State of the Band annual report.

Band leaders are also exploring spaces at both the band’s casinos in Onamia and Hinckley as possible sites for retail cannabis dispensaries.

Benjamin also outlined band priorities for the coming year, including housing on and off tribal lands and a campaign to draw awareness to the band’s environmental concerns around a proposed nickel mine in Tamarack.

Benjamin stated she’s especially proud of the band’s work in helping to revitalize Ojibwe language learning.

“Our achievements are a testament to the wisdom and strength of those who came before us, of our refusal to never give up or give in, of our wise exercise of sovereignty, and the power of our culture and language,” said Benjamin.

The Mille Lacs Band partnered with Rosetta Stone to create an Ojibwe language learning platform. Benjamin said tribal nations across the Great Lakes region and Canada are using the program.

Benjamin concluded her speech by lauding the hiring of Syngen Kanassatega to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota. Kanassatega is a Mille Lacs Band member and previously served as an attorney for the nearly 5,000 member Ojibwe nation.

The State of the Band address is given by the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s chief executive each year in January.