'Truth, healing and reconciliation' bill aims to bring tribes, North Dakota together

The proposed Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Commission would travel around North Dakota to "receive testimony and provide a forum for indigenous victims and families to discuss the personal impacts of physical, psychological, and spiritual violence," according to the bill.

The flags of North Dakota's five tribal nations are displayed outside Gov. Doug Burgum's office Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — After years of wrongdoing and discrimination, a North Dakota bill would create a commission that aims to foster healing and truth-telling between Native Americans and the state.

Memories of trauma, violence and racism are harbored by many North Dakota Native Americans today, and House Bill 1488 would aim to educate North Dakotans about the experiences of the state's Indigenous community to begin healing efforts.

"Having the Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Commission would provide a way forward for people to be heard," said Rep. Ruth Buffalo, D-Fargo, the bill's primary sponsor. "When there's no acknowledgement of something, then it tends to not be heard, and so this is a way to provide a healing."

Although the state's relationship with the tribal nations with which it shares borders is now generally amicable, many say there's room for improvement. Traumatic experiences from the past are still felt today as much of the violence that was inflicted upon tribal nations is not talked about.

"(North Dakota) should be willing to open up this history, talk about the conflicts that existed between the tribes and state government, and then if they really want to have good relationships with the tribes, they could teach this," said Dr. Michael Yellow Bird, professor and dean of the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba and a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. "They could create a whole curriculum of what it means to be a compassionate citizen in the state — one that cooperates and practices empathy, practices supporting."


The bill would create a five-person Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Commission appointed by an advisory council comprised of people from all five of North Dakota's tribal nations. The commission would travel around the state to "receive testimony and provide a forum for indigenous victims and families to discuss the personal impacts of physical, psychological, and spiritual violence," according to the bill.

Trauma can be passed down through generations, said Dr. Denise Lajimodiere, a retired North Dakota State University professor and citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. Some of the trauma Native Americans endured stemmed from the creation of boarding schools nationwide, 12 of which were in North Dakota. These schools were operated by the federal government and, in some cases, churches.

Between 1869 and the 1960s, it's estimated hundreds of thousands of Native American children were forced from their homes and into boarding schools. They were stripped of their culture in an effort to "kill the Indian, save the man," according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

Many children were physically and mentally abused in the schools, and North Dakota Native Americans and their descendants still bear the mental, and in some cases physical, scars today.

"This commission represents a long-awaited admission of injustices and an acknowledgement that Native people continue to be negatively impacted by settler colonization," Lajimodiere said. She studied boarding schools nationwide and is the daughter of boarding school survivors.

In 2007, the Canadian government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help people who were affected by residential schools, equivalent to the U.S. boarding schools, set up throughout the country. It was a nationwide acknowledgement of Canada's wrongdoing, Lajimodiere said, and for six years the commission interviewed more than 6,500 people affected by the residential schools.

Yellow Bird said there are different kinds of reconciliation, and in North Dakota's case, he thinks a positive step would be to create a mindfulness curriculum for legislators, police, teachers, media and any person who has to deal with the public. It could teach people how to be mindful, develop compassion, become less reactive and feel more connected with one another.

For Mark Fox, chairman of the MHA Nation, reconciliation is grounded in respect.


"I think this House bill gives us a chance," Fox said. "It's going to try to set out and help state officials and state non-Indians understand the true history of what occurred in North Dakota, and not just in the last 100 years."

It is one thing to say relations with tribes and the state are going well, but it is another to negate that in actions, Fox said, offering the example of the ongoing mineral rights dispute between North Dakota and the MHA Nation.

The tribal nation filed two lawsuits last year asserting North Dakota asked the federal government to declare the oil and minerals beneath the Missouri River within the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation belonged to the state. It is estimated that the mineral and gas royalties at stake amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Under the proposed bill, members of the Truth, Healing and Reconciliation Commission would examine the impact of historical trauma on North Dakota Native Americans today and create a report with findings and recommendations each year to the governor and the Legislature.

"This is really a way to help get us to a better place as a state, and healing is really at the heart of it," Buffalo said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at

HB1488 by inforumdocs on Scribd

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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