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Ojibwe Elections Determine Anderson's Future
By Leif Enger
June 12, 2000
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At the Mille Lacs reservation, veteran Chief Executive Marge Anderson has seen the tribe through a successful treaty-rights battle and the sudden prosperity of casino gambling. Anderson has become a nationally known leader in Native American sovereignty issues. It was something of a surprise, then, when she came in second in the April primary - to challenger Melanie Benjamin, who says Anderson has lost touch with her constituents.

THE CANDIDATES DIFFER ON EVERY HIGH-PROFILE ISSUE in the campaign. Incumbent Anderson opposes handing out casino profit-sharing payments to tribe members; Benjamin would let them vote on it. Anderson defends the tribe's controversial Corporate Commission, which invests tribal money in business ventures; Benjamin says it needs an audit. And while Anderson portrays herself as an innovator and champion of the poor, Benjamin says her opponent has become a complacent creature of public relations.

"The band has an excellent PR firm, and I think the goal of that firm is to make sure of the image of Marge Anderson as this great individual. And Marge is a good person. But as a band member, we are not being included in a lot of the successes of the band. And we're being involved in any of the decision-making responsibilities of the band," Benjamin said.

Benjamin, a former tribal administrator under Anderson, says life at Mille Lacs is far from the idealized success-stories circulated by the Band. For example, she says the administration won't face the bad news that unemployment, which all but disappeared after the tribe opened two casinos, has climbed back to troublesome levels. Though the Band employs 3,500 people, only 450 of them are Mille Lacs Ojibwe.

"Right now, band members that are not able to secure jobs, and see these high paying jobs go to non band members, it irks them. Many of these individuals are making six figures, plus bonuses. And as a band member, you're not even able to get a nine dollar an hour job? It causes hard feelings," Benjamin said.

Anderson acknowledges unemployment has risen, but accuses Benjamin of over-playing those hard feelings. Anderson has consistently rejected the idea of profit sharing from the Band's lucrative gaming operations; she points to the tribe's new schools, services and infrastructure as a better use of casino revenues. She says Benjamin's willingness to put per-capita payments to a vote amounts to a tacit promise of free money.

"It'd be an easy way to buy a vote, but when I go out there I tell 'em, 'I'll do the best job I can.' I don't make any promises at all that I don't intend to keep. When I say something, I mean it from my heart. I want to do the best job I can and not make false promises."

Another point of conflict is the tribe's strict drug-and-alcohol policy, which can cost an employee his job after three infractions. Benjamin says the policy is too harsh, that it seems aimed at the most vulnerable, and is largely responsible for the tribe's unemployment problem. Anderson says it's another issue - like profit sharing - where a tough stand is probably going to cost her some votes.

"We took this drug and alcohol policy around to the districts and meetings and listening circles, you know, public hearings; and everybody supported it," Anderson said. "But now it has affected a few people, and suddenly it's no good. My question to them is: Do you want a school bus driver, under the influence of drugs, driving your kids to school? Do you want somebody working here that is under the influence, working for tribal government? Is that what you want?"

Anderson has been reluctant to give interviews during the campaign. Admittedly distrustful of the press, she even stopped MPR from recording a public candidate forum in the days before the primary election. That action helped fuel the already widespread notion that her government is anything but open. At a recent rally against what protesters called "abuses of sovereignty", band member Vince Hill said he's supporting Melanie Benjamin because Anderson's administration banned his political party from meeting on the reservation.

"We were banned from meeting, doing anything on the reservation, for two years. We have no civil rights on Indian reservations today," Hill said.

But even Hill says Mille Lacs, with its business and traffic, is a different place from a decade ago, and Anderson supporters, like John Donahue, say it makes no sense to complain. Mention the unemployment issue to Donahue, and he says he knows too many band members who could get work today if they really wanted it.

"People gotta get out and just get jobs," Donahue said. "It's all out there, just got get out there and get it. If you're gonna sit around and wait for per-capita payments, I guess that's what you're gonna do, but it's not that way. It's all over there for you."