Things have gotten so bad on the Mille Lacs Reservation that Melanie Benjamin, the Ojibwe band’s chief executive, closed the doors to her annual State of the Band address last month. She wanted to address her people, and only her people, admitting band members, essential tribal employees, and invited guests to the exclusion of all others. Benjamin used the occasion to speak about justice – economic, social, and criminal.
Her impassioned rhetoric reminded attendees of the great strides the Mille Lacs people have made since the dimmest days of the European invasion; how the people had fought to retain sovereignty and restore the band’s spiritual ways and economic base. She warned, however, that all progress would be lost if the band didn’t take immediate and unflinching measures to abate criminal activity on the reservation – the latest threat, Benjamin said, to its continuing existence.
Benjamin announced that beginning January 1, 2017, the federal government will assume concurrent criminal jurisdiction on the central Minnesota reservation. Under the new agreement, federal authorities will be able prosecute crimes such as rape, murder, felony child abuse and felony assault in cooperation with state and tribal law enforcement.
Benjamin said the move is intended to send a message “to drug dealers, gang members and anyone intent on committing violent crimes on our lands. We will catch you, and when we do, you are going to Leavenworth, not Stillwater, and you are not getting out for a very, very long time. Tell the dealers,” she said “if you don’t want to go to federal prison, get off our lands now, and stay out.”
Some band members have decried the new agreement as a surrender of tribal sovereignty. Benjamin said she doesn’t see it that way. Unless the band restores peace on the reservation, she said, there will be no nation left to exercise its rights. “The circle of life needs to be restored in a manner that permits the integrity of the individual to be maintained so that the community will continue to grow and prosper.”
While the Mille Lacs Band’s two casinos have benefitted by their proximity to the Twin Cities, Mille Lacs Solicitor General Todd Matha told the StarTribune in January that tribal communities have paid a heavy price in the form of increased crime. “Mille Lacs is basically the first stop from the [Twin] Cities going north,” he said. “When there’s gang activity and control of the drug trade, there’s obviously the violence that goes along with that.”
U.S. Justice Department statistics show overall crime rates on reservations are typically twice as high as they are elsewhere. A respite in criminal activity was noted on Minnesota’s Ojibwe reservations, however, following a federal indictment in January 2012, which charged two-dozen suspected members of the Native Mob with crimes ranging from conspiracy and racketeering to drug trafficking and attempted murder.
The Native Mob, which was thought at the time to have over 200 members, had terrorized tribal communities in the region since it formed in the early 1990s. Tribal authorities hoped the arrests would permanently weaken the crime organization, which was distributing illegal drugs, from crack cocaine to ecstasy.
Minnesota law enforcement officers said the Native Mob was responsible for most of the gang-related violent crime in the state, including the Twin Cities. The indictments claimed gang members used guns and baseball bats to intimidate enemies and punish those who cooperated with law enforcement.
Dave Ulberg, a Leech Lake tribal narcotics investigator, told Minnesota Public Radio at the time that since the arrest sweep, more people on the Leech Lake Reservation were sharing crime-related information with law enforcement without fear of retaliation. He said he believed the arrests, which targeted the Native Mob’s top leadership, damaged the gang’s organizational structure.
“I think they got hit very hard. And I don’t think it’s just a temporary lull,” Ulberg said. “I don’t think it will be the complete end of them, but they’re definitely not as strong as they used to be, right now.”
Four years later, gang violence is again spiking in places like Leech Lake and Mille Lacs. The Mille Lacs Band has recorded some 1,600 crimes since February 2013, on a reservation which has around 2,300 residents. They included two homicides, 137 assaults, 229 burglaries, 28 charges of arson, 35 robberies and 943 thefts.
In the Mille Lacs band’s application for help from the federal government, Benjamin wrote that state, local and tribal resources “have proved insufficient to provide effective criminal law enforcement” on the reservation. She wrote that Mille Lacs County’s crime rate remained double the Minnesota average between 2000 and 2010, with a disproportionate amount of criminal activity occurring on the band’s land.
“We believe this decision – made after a careful review of the tribe’s application and the facts on the ground – will strengthen public safety and the criminal justice system serving the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in a statement released by the Department of Justice.
The decision was the second assumption of jurisdiction granted by the Department of Justice under the landmark Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010. The Act gave the Department of Justice discretion to accept jurisdiction to prosecute violations of the Major Crimes Act within areas of Indian country that are also subject to Public Law 280. Public Law 280 is the 1953 measure that mandated the transfer of federal law enforcement jurisdiction for certain tribes to six states, including Minnesota. The first assumption of federal jurisdiction took place on Minnesota’s White Earth Reservation in March 2013.
Benjamin told her people that despite the problems on their reservation, there is reason to be optimistic. “In a hundred years, those who seek to disrupt our way of life will be gone,” she said. “But the non-removable Mille Lacs Band will still be here. With the strength of our culture and our traditions, with the love for our elders and our children, we will always persevere…Together, we will restore order to our lands, and fight for the right of our children and our elders to be safe in their homes.”