Chief Executive / Chairwoman of the Non-Removable Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Melanie Benjamin leads the Executive Branch of the Mille Lacs Band tribal government, which implements Band laws and programs. In her role, Chief Benjamin is statutorily responsible for conducting external relations on the Band’s behalf with all other governments and political subdivisions.

We’re delighted to share a conversation in celebration of Women’s History Month with Chief Benjamin regarding true inclusion in the workplace, advice for other women and challenges she has overcome in her industry.

What challenges have you experienced as a woman specific to your industry?

There are approximately 580 different tribal governments in the United States, each having its own unique culture and traditions. While my culture was matriarchal, when I was first elected as a tribal leader back in 2000 there were very few other American Indian women across Indian country who served in the highest elected position for their tribes. When I would attend a convention of the National Congress of American Indians, women leaders were outnumbered by at least 10 to 1. A dear friend of mine, Susan Masten, was the Chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe of California at that time and became elected as one of the first women Presidents of the National Congress of American Indians. Through this experience, she witnessed how men supported one another and decided that as women tribal leaders we needed our own network so that we could come together to support and encourage one another. We created an organization called Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, or WEWIN. WEWIN has now existed for decades and has grown into an organization that supports Indian women from all walks of life as we take on various leadership roles in our communities, whether in elected office or in some other way. I am still on the board of WEWIN today, which has helped and supported countless American Indian women leaders over the years.

What are some ways to create true inclusion and belonging in the workplace?

For true inclusion to be practiced throughout the workplace, there must be authentic buy-in throughout the entire organization or community that not only can women be leaders, but there must be a given assumption that women should be and are leaders. Our Anishinaabe culture at Mille Lacs can serve as a model of this buy-in for other communities and organizations. Here at Mille Lacs, women have always served in a decision-making capacity. I come from a community that has always been matriarchal. That does not mean that men have a lesser role. In our society, men and women have always had certain cultural responsibilities that are gender-based, but which are equitable when it comes to decision-making and leading.

Unlike western society and other cultures where women have been or still are subjugated and treated as the property of men, women in our Anishinaabe culture have always been decision-makers with control over our lives, control within our families and with a leadership voice in our community in an equitable way with men. We were never second-class citizens. When a society raises their children with leadership assumptions that are based on gender equity, it is natural for a young woman to assume that she will one day step into leadership roles in our community. When my elders asked me 23 years ago to run for office, I might have been surprised that they decided upon me as the individual who should lead our community, but my surprise had nothing to do with the fact that I am a woman. These are lessons that other societies can learn from our culture.

What advice or support has been most valuable for you in your career?

We have certain cultural teachings, which we refer to as our Anishinaabe values. The seven most well-known are Respect, Courage, Love, Honesty, Wisdom, Truth and Humility. The best advice I ever received was from my elders, who told me to focus on leading with these values while serving our people in elected office. The concept was not to govern others as a leader, but to serve others as a leader. When I was first exposed to the concept of “servant leadership” as defined by Robert Greenleaf, I was very excited about the idea of leading with humility. Then it occurred to me that the reason I was so excited was because servant leadership was already very familiar to me. Mr. Greenleaf might have been the first person to describe this concept in western terms, but whether he knew it or not, he borrowed that concept from Native American cultures.

My advice to other women would be to practice servant leadership. You have a unique gift in life to offer and it is our purpose in life to discover what our gifts are and use our gifts to help others. My philosophy is that most people are genuinely good and intelligent and sometimes just need a little urging and mentorship to bring their gifts forward. I would also advise other women to lean on other women and learn from them. See them as the invaluable resources they are and nurture those relationships. And do not consider other women your competition – that will get you nowhere fast and only create unhappiness. Keep close to your culture, believe in yourself and teach the girls and young women in your life to do the same.


It has been our pleasure to share the wisdom and advice of some of the women leaders we have the honor of working alongside throughout the month of March in celebration of Women’s History Month.


Equity and inclusion in the workplace are critical to maintaining a strong and stable organizational culture.

By using our website, you agree to our privacy policy and our use of cookies, which helps us improve your browsing experience. More information.

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.