My latest Mille Lacs Messenger column

Band needs help from inside and out

by Brett Larson

Like many in the Mille Lacs area, I’ve been watching the political events in the Mille Lacs Band community with interest. I think I speak for many of the Band’s non-Indian neighbors when I say to Band members, “We’re pulling for you.” A successful and healthy Mille Lacs community depends on a successful and healthy Mille Lacs Band government, and right now, we don’t have that.

We have a Band Assembly who, I believe, prematurely ousted Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin before she had a chance to defend herself. It’s true that she walked out of a hearing that was scheduled for her to make her defenses, but she believed that a court order questioning the proceedings was legitimate. It may turn out that she’s guilty of using her position for personal gain, but the Band Assembly, rather than wait for the legal issues to be sorted out, chose to vote her out of office immediately, indicating that “innocent until proven guilty” may not be a core principle of the Assembly.

Anyone who’s been around the Mille Lacs Band knows there are warring factions, not just in the government but in the Band community as a whole. In any society, tribal or non, when people in government are more loyal to their factions, their families or themselves than they are to the group as a whole, problems develop: nepotism in government appointments, favors doled out to people on the “inside,” revenge taken against perceived enemies, intimidation, threats and a constant cloud of fear.

Let’s hope that Band members reject that kind of factionalism and get behind the candidate most capable of running a squeaky clean administration that will lend stability and credibility to tribal government.

I don’t know which Band candidate best fits that description, but I think Band members know, and I hope they put the interests of the whole over the interests of their specific group.

In addition to good leadership, the Band also needs help from the feds, and soon. If the allegations in the Band’s recent internal investigation are true, then a lot of Band money – and probably federal funds included – has gone into the pockets of “skunks in the woodpile,” as former commissioner of community development Al Olson called them. It’s not just Band members who should be angry at the culprits; non-Indians’ tax dollars are probably also among the missing.

David Lillehaug, the former U.S. Attorney who conducted the investigation, would not make these charges lightly. If he found sufficient evidence to put in writing the names of those suspected of bilking the Band out of millions, then what’s taking the feds so long? Bring on the indictments! Band members need to clean house in order to move forward.

When a new chief is chosen, I hope he or she realizes that the Band needs a more transparent government, which would prevent some of these problems from happening again. I understand the historical reasons why tribal governments are neither required nor inclined to make their governments as open as our state government. The defense of tribal sovereignty, the protection of Band assets, and the fear of a racist backlash make tribal governments hesitant to let the sun shine in.

However, there are also historical reasons why the best functioning governments are also the most transparent.

I don’t think tribes should open their books to any non-Indian who walks in off the street, but Mille Lacs Band members should have easy access to government data – including casino data. The problem with that is obvious: Once Band members know the details, the world will know. Well, so be it. Too much knowledge is far less dangerous than too little.

The more that’s known about what the Band actually owns and makes through its casinos, the better chance that Band members and their allies in local, state and federal governments can keep close tabs on that treasure.

Brett Larson is the editor of the Mille Lacs Messenger.


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