Brett Larson Inaajimowin Staff Writer
A parent’s worst fear came true for Sandi and Benji Blake on Sunday, September 9. They were driving home from a powwow in North Dakota when they received a call telling them their eldest son, Benji Jr., had been shot.
“We were on the road six hours away,” said Benji Sr. “We couldn’t do anything but try to be sane and get home.”
Sandi was driving, and after initially swerving back and forth in response to the horrible news, she focused on driving and keeping everyone in the car safe.
“Somebody called and said he didn’t make it,” Sandi said. “It was a long drive home.”
Benji’s younger brother Max was at home when a friend came to his door and told him what had happened. He went to the scene and thought about breaking through the police tape to see his brother and his sister Rochelle, but he decided to respect the officers and let them do their jobs.
“They had everything blocked off, so I couldn’t be there for my sister. All I could do was tell my parents and try to be strong for them and for myself,” said Max. “It was hard, being the youngest of our siblings, to try to be the strong one and hold it together.”
A few hours later, they were told that Benji died quickly.
Benji Sr. was relieved. He had been afraid his son had suffered. “That was something that weighed on my mind,” he said.
The next week was a blur. By the time Sandi and Benji made it home, family and friends were there waiting for them to begin the traditional four-day fire.
The following night, the house was packed with supporters. Two people said they saw Benji at the gathering. Shirley Boyd, who was there at the time, said a person’s spirit will go around and visit all the people and places he's been and, yeah, he was there that night.
Max stayed up late to tend the fire, keeping vigil and remembering Benji.
A year and two months apart, Max and Benji were as close as brothers can be. When Max decided to attend school at Flan- dreau Indian School (where Sandi and Benji Sr. had met decades earlier), Benji soon followed. They decided together to return to Mille Lacs and go to school at Onamia, and together they transferred to Nay Ah Shing, where they both graduated.
Max and Benji were harvesting partners, too. “When we’d go hunting, he’d skin the buck and gut it. But when we’d go fishing, I’d clean the fish, and he’d be in the kitchen cooking. During ricing season, we’d rice together. We always knew we had to provide for our family. That’s gonna be hard, because that was our deal.”
As a child, Benji loved to dance. “He was the first to dance, the first to sing, and I followed right behind him,” said Max.
He performed in Japan and at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. Benji's childhood regalia, beaded by his grandmother Rosalie, is on display at the Mille Lacs Indian Museum's powwow exhibit.
Benji Sr. said, “To have that kind of experience in his lifetime, that’s pretty lucky.”
Benji Jr. would stop and visit friends and family, or come to his mom and dad’s house to hang out in the tipi. Recently, the brothers and their kids built a sweat lodge. It turned out to be their final activity as a family.
Max was reflective as he gazed at the lodge. “It’s supposed to take days to build a sweat lodge like this. But with the family all working together, we were done in a few hours.”
Benji Sr. described his son as “happy-go-lucky.” “He liked to laugh and tease,” he said. “And he learned a lot of the things we learned from Sandi’s parents. He was full of knowledge of ricing, sapping, fishing.”
Sandi remembered one day when the boys were little, and Max, Sandi, and Benji Blake Sr. hope Benji's death brings the community together to fight drugs and violence.
￼Benji decided to cut Max’s hair. “Pretty soon I heard them laughing really hard for a long time, so I went to see,” she said, laughing herself at the memory. “There were roads and patches all over Max's head.”
“His disposition was always sunny,” she added. “He was hardly ever angry or down. Even when I was lecturing him, if I was giving him a ride somewhere, he’d always get out of the car and say, ‘I love you, Mom,’ with a smile on his face. All through his life he was like that.”
Hoping for justice
With the feasts, the wake, the funeral, and the four-day feast behind them, Benji’s family is adjusting to life and facing life without him.
Sandi has finally been able to get a little more sleep, and Max has had a chance to respond to all the questions and outpouring of support on Facebook from friends across Indian Country.
“He’s with our relatives now on the other side,” said Benji Sr. “He’d want us to be happy.”
Sandi agreed. “Our beliefs tell us that if we mourn our loved ones too hard we’re holding them back," she said. "We’re supposed to try to continue living our lives the way he would want. To be happy and keep dancing. Obizaan (Lee Staples) always says to get up in the morning, get dressed, hold your head up, smile, and be happy.”
“It’s hard but it helps,” said Max.
One thing would make it easier, according to Benji Sr.
“When we have justice for Benji, I’ll feel better,” he said. “Until then, it’s hard to heal, hard to forgive.”
He is grateful to those who have spoken with the police about what they know. “I want to give credit to them, to say thank you to all the people in the community who came forward.”
Sandi encourages others to step up and turn in drug dealers.
“There’s that saying, ‘If you see something, say something.’ Use the Tribal Police Facebook page and send a message. That’s a way somebody can be part of a solution to the problem, and re- main anonymous. They’re not going to put your name out there.”
They spoke of recent overdose deaths and another murder that took place in broad daylight a few weeks before Benji’s death. “It’s getting dangerous,” Sandi said. “The drugs make them cold-blooded and heartless. And to see Indian people killing Indian people, it’s heartbreak on top of heartbreak.”
The Blakes have heard that dealers are fighting over the Mille Lacs Reservation — claiming it as their territory.
“There’s a lot of money here every month,” said Sandi. “When kids get their money, the drug dealers are right there, preying on them, trying to get them hooked on drugs. They prey
on Native women — getting them high, moving in, keeping them high, and setting up drug houses. Our Resident Services, Maintenance, and other front-line staff in Housing need to step up and say something when they see things. They know. Everyone has a cell phone. Take pictures and forward them to Tribal Police on Facebook Messenger. Every single one of us has to do our part. Even if it is little, it's something and we’ll become a force together.”
Although the healing remains incomplete, the Blake family wants something positive to result from their sorrow.
“We’re hoping these murders are an eye-opener for our community,” Benji Sr. said. “We don’t want this to happen to anybody else’s family.”
Sandi agreed. “I would hope this senseless murder would not be in vain, that something would come from it, that the community would start getting rid of the drug dealers coming up here from the Cities, that our people who are using could open their eyes and want to stop and heal. They should do it for themselves, if not for Benji Jr.”
“I don’t want my brother’s death to be a statistic,” said Max. “I want this to be a reason for us to come together as a community again. I’m hoping one day we can unite and get rid of the drugs, the violence, and step forward together.”
If you have information on this or any other crime in our communities, please call the Mille Lacs Tribal Police Department at 320-532-3430. In Districts I and IIa, you can also call the Mille Lacs County Sheriff’s Office at 320-983-8257.