ST. PAUL, MN – After more than two decades as the popularly elected Chief Executive and Chairwoman of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Melanie Benjamin has announced she will not seek a sixth term in office. First elected in 2000, Benjamin is one of the longest serving Chief Executives in the Band’s history. Benjamin has also achieved national prominence in her work promoting Native women in leadership.
One of the central themes of Benjamin’s administration has been her battle to protect the Band’s homelands and tribal sovereignty at the local, state and federal level. She has aggressively fought to protect the existence of the Band’s reservation, defeating claims by Mille Lacs County that it was disestablished over 100 years ago. The county’s intransigence created a law enforcement crisis on the reservation that subsided only after the Band forced the county to back down. Under Benjamin’s determined leadership, the Band ultimately secured legal confirmation that its reservation remains intact in a 2016 legal opinion from the U.S. Interior Department Solicitor and in a 2022 federal court decision.
“Serving as Chief Executive for my Band has been the greatest honor of my life,” said Benjamin. “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. That has been a focus of my work, and I am very proud of our new warriors. They are now ready to lead our tribe with vision and skill. I’ve done my duty and I’ve concluded it is time for me to pass on the torch.”
Benjamin added, “Many of the commissioners and other leaders I’ve appointed or hired over the years, including my able and effective Commissioner of Administration, Sam Moose, are great examples of a younger generation of leaders who have brought back home to our reservation the stellar academic credentials they’ve earned and now dedicate to the Band’s interests. I’m confident that this generation will protect and preserve the Band’s future.”
During her tenure, Benjamin has diversified the Band’s economy by expanding the Band’s commercial enterprises beyond gaming. Today, the Band is the largest employer in east-central Minnesota. She has also gained prominence as a leading voice for tribal sovereignty at the state and federal level, speaking and testifying before Congress on multiple issues including tribal self-governance, public safety, investments and infrastructure, health, and education. Under her leadership, the Band expanded programs focused on preserving the Ojibwe language, and successfully convinced Congress to allow funding for tribal satellite schools in more remote reservation areas through use of technology-linked classrooms.
The General Election will be held on June 11, 2024, and the new Chief will take office on July 8, 2024.
In her recent State of the Band Address Benjamin said, “Together, we have overcome challenges, championed causes and built a path toward a brighter future for our grandchildren. 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. Miigwech for the trust you placed in me, for the battles we faced together and for the victories we can celebrate today as a strong, proud Indian nation. It has been a wonderful journey, and as a Band member, I look forward to witnessing our continued prosperity and growth under our next leaders who follow. May our future be even brighter, and may the bonds that unite us as the proud, the unbeatable and non-removable Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe remain unbreakable forever.”
After the conclusion of her final term in July, Benjamin intends to focus on advancing leadership development, opportunities and support for Native women and youth. She expects to continue public service as a board member for organizations including the Native American Finance Officers Association; Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations; American Indian Law Resource Center; Indian Gaming Association; and the MN Housing Finance Agency.