Spirit Lake Nation Chairwoman Myra Pearson recalled Wednesday the time she and her grandson tried to meet with someone at the North Dakota Capitol, unaware that a Dakota Access Pipeline protest was taking place outside.
Pearson was met by law enforcement and asked to leave, an incident that prompted her to think she would never go back.
But on Wednesday, Pearson and other tribal leaders who participated in a two-day conference in Bismarck said relationships with the state have improved significantly in the past year.
“I know the door is open for me again,” Pearson said during a panel of tribal leaders.
The event organized by the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission had more than 300 people registered, including tribal, state and federal officials, with the room packed throughout the two days.
Jamie Azure, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, called the event a “healing ceremony” and said the face-to-face interactions will promote partnerships between governments.
“This is truly the first step,” Azure said.
Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa Nation, said tribal leaders had long struggled to build a bridge between tribes and the state.
Fox and other tribal leaders commended Gov. Doug Burgum for making tribal engagement a priority and encouraging communication and understanding.
“You have to understand where you come from or what has happened so you can change where you want to go,” Fox said.
Monica Mayer, councilwoman for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, highlighted some of the challenges facing Indian Country, including statistics showing one in three Native American women will be sexually assaulted.
“That’s just the data that’s reported. Most of the data is not reported, so I suspect that’s at least one in two,” Mayer said.
Mayer, a physician, also discussed the impact of opioid addiction and increase in human trafficking cases at Fort Berthold.
“If we don’t listen and work together to find solutions for this great state, the criminals win, not us,” Mayer said.
Burgum said the state and tribes share many of the same challenges and opportunities, such as the opioid epidemic, access to health care and education.
“We don’t believe North Dakota can reach its fullest potential if each of our tribal nations are not reaching their fullest potential,” Burgum said.
The state will have a similar event next year, but in a larger room so more even people can participate, according to Burgum.
Tribal leaders said they hope to build on the improved relationships to affect change.
“Next time we can come back here, we can talk about our accomplishments,” Pearson said.