Fighting opioid epidemic focus of 34th annual State of the Band Address

January 26, 2018


The sound of drums welcomed attendees to the 34th annual State of the Band address held in Onamia on Tuesday, January 9. An invocation was presented in Ojibwe primarily focusing on the opioid drug epidemic. 


Guests included the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (MLBO) elected and appointed officials, many state level dignitaries, candidates for Minnesota Attorney General, Pine County Attorney Reese Frederickson, Pine County Commissioners (Steve Hallan, John Mikrot, Matt Ludwig and Steve Chaffee), Pine County Administrator David Minke, and many other honored guests. According to the MLBO website, there were approximately 1,200 people in attendance.

All of the speakers who addressed the attendees spoke of the opioid epidemic that is plaguing the area.


A ripple effect


Rayna Churchill, MLBO Chief Justice compared the crisis to a drop of water causing a ripple effect. She spoke of the impact it has had on Tribal Court cases including the following:


• The need for children to be removed from homes, which in turn, resulted in guardianship and custody petitions being filed.

• An increase in truancy cases.

• An increase in domestic abuse and harassment orders issued.

• Elder abuse issues.

• More unlawful detainer filings (evictions from Band homes).

• Increase in child support and paternity cases.

• Criminal and civil complaints.

• Electric shut off for the homes of those who use these drugs.


She presented a graphic, (see page 11), depicting how the epidemic affects all areas of the band, including culture and traditions.


“The opioid problem is not new to the Mille Lacs Band; however, it significantly resurfaced in the past two years. This year alone, there were 12 deaths directly related to heroin and substance abuse that we are aware of. That is one death a month for our small community. There may be other casualties indirectly related to the use of drugs. This is not acceptable,” said Churchill.


Churchill took the time to recognize (as a group) individuals who have appeared in court “due to drugs, alcohol or any addiction, and have overcome them.” She said she applauds those individuals who have the strength and determination to overcome and reach out to help others do the same.


In closing, she said, “This does not define who we are as a Band, as Ojibwe Anishinaabe, as a people that speak and practice the traditional ways. We can overcome by uniting, each branch working in unison to accomplish an end-result. Every one of us has been affected, in one way or another, by this crisis, thus the ripple effect.”


A year of ‘warriorism’


Chief Executive of the MLBO, Melanie Benjamin, started off her speech by saying the “Mille Lacs Band is not the government. It is not those who lead the band; the Mille Lacs Band is you, the Band members. The Band is our ancestors, those here today and those children yet to be born. Our Band statutes include language that says, ‘to the people is reserved the power.’ And one thing you have proven again and again is that the power of the people is always greater than the people in power.”


Benjamin said the Band has faced many challenges in the last year, but none as great as the opioid epidemic. 

Benjamin went on to say that new “warriors” are coming forward everyday, fighting for the community and traditions of the Mille Lacs Band. They are working to fight against the opioid epidemic, defending their rights and fighting for the future. She mentioned those who testified against the Line 3 pipeline and those who marched in the “uncuff our cops” rally at the state Capitol. She listed many other organizations such as the “sober squad” and “smudge walkers” who fight to keep the drugs off the reservation.


“I believe, and I want you to believe, that we can and will overcome this epidemic,” she said.


Challenge for gaming and law enforcement


Last year was a challenging year for gaming tribes, added Benjamin. This nine-state region of the country saw the lowest amount of growth this year. She went on to say that they were prepared for this decline and revenue was brought in through off reservation hotel investments. Last year was one of the best years for these hotels.


Chief Benjamin went on to address the improvements the Band is making, including a new clinic building in District 1, a kidney dialysis clinic in Isle, a brand new community center, affordable housing projects in District 3 (Hinckley), and several other projects.


The topic of the dispute with Mille Lacs County regarding the cooperative law enforcement agreement was another topic of Benjamin’s speech. She chided Mille Lacs County and state officials for not renewing the agreement. According to Benjamin, the lack of power that Tribal Police have is a detriment to the war on drugs in the community. 


The room erupted with cheers as Benjamin went on to praise Pine County for the work that they have done to expand and uphold the agreement in District 3. 


In what appeared to be the most celebrated announcement of the day, interim Tribal Police Chief, Sara Rice, was named permanently to the position.

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