By Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, April 1, 2015
San Diego, March 31, 2015 - Indian Gaming 2015 attendees enjoyed an evening of dancing and celebration at “Culture Night” as the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) presented the Tim Wapato Sovereign Warrior Award to Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
“I want to take a moment and acknowledge two great leaders, whose footsteps I walk in, and who taught me about tribal sovereignty: Art Gahbow and Marge Anderson,” Benjamin said in her acceptance speech.
“This award being on Culture Night makes it even more special for me. I want to say a few words about the connection between culture and sovereignty,” said Benjamin. She described Tim Wapato’s work as Lead Negotiator on Indian Treaty rights for the Northwest tribes, and his effort to always keep tribal traditions and culture close to the negotiations.
Benjamin compared that work to the Mille Lacs Band’s battles to protect its rights.
“We had the advantage of brilliant attorneys,” she said. “But we also involved our spiritual leaders and relied on them to guide us every step of the way. We had Native runners, who ran while carrying a torch all the way from the Great Lakes to Washington D.C. As advised by our spiritual leaders, our lawyers put cedar in their shoes before walking into the Supreme Court. During oral arguments, and the weeks and months ahead, our spiritual leaders and Elders were praying, putting out dishes, and offering asema, praying for the health of the Judges and their families, and praying for them to do the right thing. We won this case not just from good legal work, but because we had spiritual strength on our side. That is something called cultural sovereignty.”
Having served on the 1993 NIGA Board of Directors that hired Tim Wapato as NIGA’s Executive Director and his wife, Gay Kingman, as Public Relations Director, Benjamin went on to recall Tim and Gay’s work when gaming was under attack by Donald Trump and congressional members from Nevada and Atlantic City.
“Tim and Gay always kept our cultural sovereignty in mind,” she said. “I was so proud when they used the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe as the focus of their campaign against Donald Trump, who at that time was lobbying to kill Indian gaming. There was a gaming hearing in the U.S. House, and Trump was going to testify. Gay and Tim created a campaign called Yachts versus Schools. It was brilliant. They showed Trump spending his money on yachts, while Mille Lacs had built schools, clinics and ceremonial buildings.”
She drew a warm laugh from the audience when she recalled how Tim and Gay asked the Band to send a group of children and Elders to the D.C. hearing Trump was testifying at, describing a very effective tactic Band Elders used at the hearing.
“During that hearing, our women elders practiced an effective Native tradition that we all know, as old as time: With arms crossed, they quietly stared Trump down and gave him the old ‘stink eye’!”
Others fondly recalled how this seemed to actually rattle Trump, throwing him off his game.
Benjamin concluded her remarks referring again to Tim’s legacy.
“To me, Tim Wapato was everything a tribal warrior should be. He was tough, he was humble, and he was so smart. And he knew the power of cultural sovereignty,” she explained.
“Tonight, I accept this award, not for myself, but for the people of the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, for our Elders, and for our grandchildren and future generations. When I tell my own grandchildren about this award, I will tell them about the life of Tim Wapato,” Benjamin concluded.
“Let us all continue to honor his work, his life and his legacy through our own actions.”