Relations between the state and North Dakota's American Indian tribes were badly frayed when Doug Burgum became governor in December. Massive protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which crosses the Missouri River just upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, caused friction between the state and tribes, resulting in a regrettable deterioration in relations-compounded by the lack of dialogue between the state and its native nations. Even worse, the legislative branch seemed to go out of its way to offend the tribes, cancelling the traditional State of the Tribes address and rejecting the display of tribal flags in the Capitol.
Since taking office, Burgum has made repairing those important relationships one of his priorities. His administration has been more engaged with the tribes than any in recent memory. One of his early steps was to travel to Cannon Ball on Standing Rock to meet with residents about pipeline concerns. More recently, the state and Standing Rock tribe reached an agreement to oversee elk hunting on the reservation. On a broader scale, Burgum and his cabinet are conducting a series of meetings with tribal leaders to discuss issues of mutual concern. It's a significant effort to achieve greater cooperation.
Burgum and his cabinet recently traveled to Standing Rock, the third such meeting in recent weeks. By meeting, officials hope to learn, understand one another's views and take steps toward reconciliation.
The governor hopes to meet with tribal leaders before the Legislature's interim Tribal Taxation Issues Committee meets at the end of the month. The committee will review the costs and benefits of tax compacts between the state and tribes; one area certain to get a lot of attention is the state's agreement with the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa Arikara Nation, concerning oil and gas revenues.
The fresh dialogue the state is opening with the tribes has the potential to make a real difference. "It's a big deal," said Scott Davis, North Dakota's Indian affairs commissioner and a Standing Rock member. And it is.
But it's critical for the effort to be sustained. This must be an ongoing commitment to bear fruit. As Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation said, "Continued efforts like this will make a significant difference in fostering a positive government-to-government relationship in the future." Keyword in the chairman's statement: continued.
It would be welcome, meanwhile, if Burgum's initiative inspires others to reach out to our American Indian neighbors, who represent 5.5 percent of North Dakota's population. For instance, many church groups have mission trips abroad, and that's laudable, but how many make the same efforts with our reservations?
In Canada, the tribes are called First Nations, in recognition that they lived here long before white settlement. That's important to remember, and to honor.
Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.