Mille Lacs Band's chief executive Benjamin won’t seek reelection, calls job ‘greatest honor of my life’

A woman poses for a photo on a lake shore
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe chief executive and tribal chairperson Melanie Benjamin poses for a photo on the shore of Mille Lacs Lake on tribal land near Onamia on Jan. 26.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s chief executive Melanie Benjamin is not seeking another term in office. Benjamin has led the nearly 5,000-member Ojibwe nation for more than two decades.  

Benjamin’s announcement was shared in a press release from the band. 

“Serving as Chief Executive for my Band has been the greatest honor of my life,” Benjamin said. “I love public service, but I have now accomplished what I first set out to do as Chief Executive. I learned from Art Gahbow, our past Chief Executive, that one of the most important jobs of any leader is to prepare the next generation to take over.” 

Two green border signs
Cars drive down Highway 169 at the border of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe land and Crow Wing County near Onamia.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Benjamin was first elected to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe’s top executive position in 2000. She was reelected in 2004 and 2008. In the fall of 2008, Benjamin was removed from office following accusations of misspending tribal money. She was elected again in 2012 and 2016. Her election in 2020 marked her sixth term in office.  

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During her tenure, Benjamin led the Mille Lacs Band through a series of court battles with neighboring Mille Lacs County. In 2022, a federal judge ruled Mille Lacs County illegally restricted the band’s policing authority on tribal land.

That ruling was the more recent in a string of victories for the Mille Lacs Band in its ongoing dispute with the county over the boundaries of its east central Minnesota reservation.

A yellow flower made of tiny beads on a lapel
Intricate beadwork adorns Melanie Benjamin’s jacket lapel as she stands in her office in the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Tribal Government Center.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Mille Lacs County argued the original reservation had been dissolved years ago and no longer existed. The 2022 decision, along with earlier rulings, determined that the band's original reservation boundaries remain intact. 

As the band’s chief executive, Benjamin was charged with growing and maintaining relationships with tribal, state and federal governments and agencies.

She serves on a host of regional and national boards and committees, including the Native American Finance Officers Association, Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, the Minnesota Board on Aging, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council. 

A birds-eye view of tribal land
The Nay-Ah-Shing Ceremonial Building (foreground) and Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe tribal land.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Early this January, Benjamin gave her final address as Mille Lacs Band’s chief executive to a packed house at the band’s convention center near Onamia.

In that speech, Benjamin urged young leaders to learn the community’s history and to speak the Ojibwe language. 

“Together, we have overcome challenges, championed causes and built a path toward a brighter future for our grandchildren,” said Benjamin. “We have worked non-stop to enhance the quality of life for every member of our tribe, laying the groundwork for well-being and prosperity. Our achievements are a testament to the wisdom and strength of those who came before us, of our commitment to never give up or give in, of our wise exercise of sovereignty and the power of our culture and language.” 

Prior to her role as chief executive, Benjamin served as the band’s commissioner of administration and senior vice president of administration and finance at Grand Casino Hinckley. Benjamin holds a master's degree in education from University of Minnesota Duluth and a B.S. in Business Administration from Bemidji State University. 

The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe will hold its general election on June 11 and the new chief executive will take office on July 8. 

A birds-eye view of tribal lands
Nay Ah Shing Drive stretches toward the shore of Mille Lacs Lake on Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe tribal land.
Ben Hovland | MPR News