November 22, 2002
serves as gateway to opportunity for
Benjamin’s degree from Bemidji State University launched her on the
path to leadership in education, business development and tribal
“I had always considered college for ‘other people,’”
recalls Melanie Benjamin. “The way we promote education today was never
for Indian people when I was a teen.”
As a high school dropout, Benjamin had married young and
then became a widow at 23. A single parent, she had tucked the thought
to college in the back of her mind.
Now 46, Benjamin is the elected chief executive for the
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, responsible for governing all aspects of
life, including legal issues, business ventures, health care,
training and employment, and preserving cultural traditions and
College education has been her gateway to opportunity.
“Power is found in knowledge, being educated to understand why we do
the way we do,” Benjamin said.
Her journey of accomplishment includes earning a bachelor’s
degree in business administration from Bemidji State University, one of
Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and studying tribal
natural resources at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder.
Benjamin was the fifth-oldest of 12 siblings and the first
to attend college. Born in Siren, Wis., she grew up in St. Louis as a
a federal government program that relocated Indian families from the
reservation to urban areas to promote assimilation into white society.
Her family eventually moved to Minneapolis, and while she
worked for an apron factory she learned about a scholarship program
Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. With the scholarship, she was able to enroll
clerical program at what is now Minneapolis Community and Technical
another of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.
She graduated in 1979 and was hired as a
secretary-receptionist by the Metropolitan Economic Development
organization that works with minority communities on business
“They promoted education to the staff,” Benjamin said.
“Nancy Glassman, one of the managers at MEDA, encouraged me to pursue
After a year, Benjamin returned to the reservation and went
to work for the Sandstone school district. Soon, aspiring to do great
help her people face the challenges of the 21st century, she
pact with a brother that they both would go to college and they picked
He enrolled at what is now the Northwest Technical College campus, also
the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.
She enrolled at Bemidji State University in business,
influenced by her experience working at MEDA. With her son entering
kindergarten, Benjamin scheduled classes in the morning and studied
there was a moment – at lunch, in the afternoon and between dinner and
her son to bed.
The campus Council of Indian Students and its director, Don
Day, played a strong supportive role for her and other American Indian
students. She embraced an Ojibwe language class, taught by Earl
got involved in cultural activities.
Benjamin graduated in 1988 with a degree in business
administration. Since then, her career path has focused on the American
She worked as the assistant library services director for
Nay Ah Shing schools, emphasizing literacy. She served as business
specialist and assistant program director the Minnesota Chippewa
Business Development Center, emphasizing innovation and
has been a management and marketing consultant to businesses owned by
Lacs Band and band members.
As a college instructor for the Indian Support Services
Department at Itasca Community College, also one of the Minnesota State
Colleges and Universities, she relished her job of mentoring and
develop future leaders.
Her leadership ability was recognized quickly. She was
appointed commissioner of administration for Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwa
1989-1997, serving as chief of staff and assuming responsibility for
operations of tribal government. She had a one-year special assignment
as senior vice president at Grand Casino Hinckley, supervising the
finance, security and human resources.
In June 2000, she was elected chief executive of the Mille
Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
She sees education as central to her agenda as the tribal
chairperson of more than 2,800 enrolled members based in Onamia, Minn.
“One day we can then
be self-sufficient, we can be educated, we can bring ourselves out of
we can have a safe environment to raise our families and we can protect
culture,” she said.
Benjamin is about to launch a Youth Tribal Council
initiative to mirror the process of the traditional council, complete
filing for office, debates and elections. The council will provide
opportunities to promote education and professional development, she
“All tribes offer
scholarship programs, and with federal Pell grants and state programs,
can be affordable,” she said. “As long as you put in studying time and
attention, college is very manageable.”
Active in many arenas, she serves as a member of the Bemidji
State University Alumni Board of Directors and has been elected
the National Indian Gaming Association and treasurer for the Minnesota
Gaming Association. She also has served on the boards of directors of
Minnesota Indian Education Association and Anishinabeg Legal Services.
starts to cure those barriers that face our people – school dropout
pregnancy, chemical dependency, unemployment, racism and oppression,”
provides an opportunity to establish relationships with non-Indian
decision-makers…and credentials to secure better-paying jobs, assume
responsibility for your and other’s lives, economics and build a better
for you and your family.”