BISMARCK-In the days after Dakota Access Pipeline protesters left the main camps, state leaders are hoping to mend a relationship with North Dakota tribes that many said became frayed during the monthslong protests.
The protests south of Mandan, spurred by objections from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that the oil pipeline threatens sacred sites and drinking water, attracted worldwide attention and thousands to camps near the Missouri River. Confrontations between law enforcement and protesters, who refer to themselves as "water protectors," occasionally turned violent.
The tribe continues to fight the project in court while the state of North Dakota is still looking to recoup millions of dollars in law enforcement costs related to the protests from the federal government.
"I think when you take the temperature of the current environment, it is pretty hot," said Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director Scott Davis, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. "There are so many factors to this of what the future of tribal-state relations are going to be. I'm confident that at some point in time they will come back to normal, but it's going to take a lot of work from leaders."
Gov. Doug Burgum spent a portion of his first State of the State address in January on the protests, which he said "lifted the veil of a troubled social fabric on the northern Great Plains." He pointed to a history of broken promises and displaced Native Americans during westward expansion.
In that speech, Burgum pledged his administration to a "fresh start" in its relationship with the tribes.
Burgum's office provided a list of meetings the governor has held with tribal leaders since taking office in mid-December. He met with Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II a few days after taking office in what the governor's office said was an effort to build trust and normalize relations between the state and tribe. The governor and Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford also met with leaders of Standing Rock, the Three Affiliated Tribes, Spirit Lake Nation and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, along with tribal college presidents, in early January.
In an interview this week, Burgum, who supported completion of the pipeline, signaled a willingness to work with tribes on social and economic issues.
"The needs of each of these tribes is very different," he said. "This is about how can we work together as two governments."
Archambault did not return messages seeking comment this week.
Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, said the Legislature has a larger role in state-tribal relationships than the governor. He said several bills that have failed this legislative session, including one he introduced requiring the display of tribal flags in the Capitol, could have helped.
"Some of these legislators are in those five districts that there are tribal members," the former Turtle Mountain chairman said. "And I feel that that's some of their constituents. They're citizens of North Dakota."
Russ McDonald, president of United Tribes Technical College, said the state's Native and non-Native populations need to have a better understanding of each other.
"If we're really serious about making things better and making North Dakota a great place to live for all people, then I think we have to know about one another," he said.
But there could be stumbling blocks to normalizing relationships.
Legislation that could open the door to state-owned casinos has some worried that lawmakers are seeking to punish tribes for the disruptions caused by the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Casinos are currently allowed on tribal land in North Dakota through federal law.
The resolution, which asks voters whether to amend the state Constitution to allow lawmakers to authorize up to six state-owned casinos, was introduced by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, and has a hearing scheduled Monday. Critics of the resolution argue it would put the state in competition with tribal casinos, which are sources of employment on the reservations.
"Is North Dakota a prejudiced state or a non-prejudiced state? We'll find out if it goes to the vote," said Richard McCloud, a former Turtle Mountain chairman. "We'll see what type of state North Dakota really is."
Carlson disputed assertions that the legislation is a retaliatory measure. He said it's about rural economic development, and he pointed out the state already allows other forms of gambling.
"The people should decide whether they think that's a good idea or not," Carlson said.
Carlson said there was "some level of disappointment" with how Standing Rock handled the protests, but added the state's relationship with the tribes hasn't changed much.
"They have a little fence-mending to do down there, but the door's open," he said. "If they want to come in and participate in the cost of the cleanup and future issues, we'll be glad to talk to them."
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, said lawmakers are "just as concerned about what goes on on the reservation now as we were before."
Still, there's been ample opportunity for disagreement in recent months. Tribal leaders felt spurned by the cancellation of a traditional state of the tribes address in January, a decision some lawmakers said was made over security concerns and the strain on law enforcement responding to the pipeline protests. Davis, who was appointed to his current position by then-Gov. John Hoeven in 2009, worked to have the tribes meet with legislative leaders in place of the address.
Davis recalled time he spent earlier in his career in South Dakota, where then-Gov. George Mickelson was challenged by the tribes to improve relations. The governor called for a "Year of Reconciliation," and Davis said he's been in contact with people who were involved in planning that event.
"There are ideas out there for that," he said. "We've come a long way. And we can't allow six months, seven months of this to ruin decades of relation-building."