NAFOA Announces the 2021 Annual Lifetime Achievement Recipients


NAFOA Announces the 2021 Annual Lifetime Achievement Recipients

October 13, 2021

From left to right: NAFOA Executive Director Rico Frias, Board 2nd Vice President VaRene Martin, Board Secretary and Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient Melanie Benjamin, Board President Tina Danforth, Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient Tadd Johnson, and Board Treasurer Hattie Mitchell.SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS — Every year, the NAFOA Board of Directors select and highlight some of our strongest Native American leaders who have brought about positive change for Indian Country. Throughout the course of their careers, these leaders have done incredible work dedicating years advocating on behalf of their communities and Native communities nationwide.

NAFOA’s Annual Lifetime Achievement Awards ceremony was held on Tuesday, September 28, 2021, at the Grand Hyatt Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. NAFOA recognized two accomplished tribal leaders: Professor Tadd M. Johnson, Esq. of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa and Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians, who were both presented with the NAFOA Lifetime Achievement Award.
“‘He has worked for tribes the past 35 years. He’ll do so much work for Indian Country and will never ask for or take credit. Tadd Johnson is that powerhouse.”
— Melanie Ann Benjamin (Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians),
NAFOA Board Secretary

Tadd M. Johnson, Esq. is the University of Minnesota’s first Senior Director of American Indian Tribal Nations Relations. In this role, he serves as the liaison between the entire University of Minnesota system and the regional Tribal Nations. An enrolled member of the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Professor Johnson served as a tribal attorney for more than 30 years,but has also served as a tribal court judge, a tribal administrator, and is a frequent lecturer on American Indian history and Federal Indian Law. He spent five years with the U.S. House of Representatives, ultimately becoming staff director and counsel to the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs. In 1997, President Clinton appointed Professor Johnson to Chair the National Indian Gaming Commission. As Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, he worked with tribes to create a Master of Tribal Administration and Governance (MTAG) degree and a Master of Tribal Resource and Environmental Stewardship degree (MTRES). He helped establish a program with the State of Minnesota and the eleven tribes to educate State Employees on the history of federal, state and tribal relations. To date, he has trained 3700 State Employees. Professor Johnson earned his B.A. from the University of St. Thomas and his law degree from the University of Minnesota. He has served as a faculty member of the National Judicial College and has served on the Board of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. He is currently on the Board of the Native Governance Center; serves as Director of the Tribal Sovereignty Institute; and is on the Board of Trustees of the Udall Foundation.
“I’ve known Melanie for very many years. She’s come a long ways and so has her people and her community through her efforts. Everybody appreciates her journey and we’re glad to be a part of it at NAFOA.”
—Cristina Danforth (Oneida Nation), NAFOA Board President
Melanie Ann Benjamin is currently the Chief Executive/Tribal Chairwoman of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Indians where she is statutorily responsible for conducting external relations on the Band’s behalf with all other governments and political subdivisions. She was first elected to this position in 2000 and has been re-elected for five consecutive terms since.

Her executive tribal experience originally started in 1989 when she was recruited to be the Chief of Staff to Chief Executives Arthur Gahbow and Marge Anderson. Here she served two four year terms where she would develop the biennial budget for Band government, oversee all administrative functions of Band government, and lead the Administration Policy Board. She then served in a special one-year appointment in 1997 as Vice President of Grand Casino Mille Lacs where she oversaw all the administrative and financial operations of Grand Casino Hinckley.

Along with her incredible work as a Chief Executive, Melanie Ann Benjamin also serves on the board for numerous organizations across the country. Including but not limited to the American Indian Law Resource Center, the Minnesota Board on Aging, Women Empowering Women for Indian Nations, the U.S. Attorney General’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council, the National Indian Gaming Association. She was also previously a board member with the American Civil Liberties Union and was Secretary and Vice Chair for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

Melanie Ann Benjamin earned her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Bemidji State University and her Master’s Degree in Education from the University of Minnesota Duluth. For all of the hard work and dedication to the American Indian community as a chief executive, board member, and tribal leader.

NAFOA is proud to present Melanie Ann Benjamin and Tadd M. Johnson with our 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award.
###  About NAFOANAFOA launched over three decades ago as the Native American Finance Officers Association to highlight the role of tribal finance in fostering economic opportunities. NAFOA has grown along with tribal economies over the last 30 years to be advocates of sound economic and fiscal policy and developers of innovative training programs in financial management to build the financial and economic skills of the next generation, and convenes tribal leadership, experienced professionals, and economic partners to meet the challenges of economic growth and change. Through its work in growing tribal economies and strengthening tribal finance NAFOA supports the advancement of independent and culturally vibrant American Indian and Alaska Native communities. To learn more about NAFOA, visit the website