Last year at this time as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were winding down most people wouldn’t have predicted a quick improvement in tribal, state and federal relations. However, that has occurred and it’s a good sign for the future.
A lot of the credit has to go to Gov. Doug Burgum. As soon as he took office he began to arrange meetings with the different reservation leaders. The first meetings weren’t publicly announced and were held on the reservations. The governor used the meetings, by all accounts, to listen to the concerns of reservation leaders and express his desire for improved communication and relations.
The recent "Strengthening Government to Government Partnerships and Relationships" conference held in Bismarck was the latest step for tribal communities to work with state and federal officials. Burgum told the conference "… we all have the ability to change our future." The two days of meetings looked at issues that will shape the future. On the agenda were sessions on the importance of tribal treaties, workforce development, law enforcement and missing and endangered indigenous women.
The high rate of sexual assaults on Native Americans was discussed along with the increase in human trafficking cases at Fort Berthold. Opioid addiction poses the same problems on the reservations that face the rest of North Dakota. Access to health care and educational opportunities are other key issues.
The discussions often came back to one topic: communication. One of the disputed issues in the Dakota Access Pipeline controversy was whether the tribes were fully informed about the pipeline plans. Tribal officials said they weren’t notified of meetings and plans, company and state officials dispute that claim. The Public Service Commission now has a policy of contacting the Indian Affairs Commission about proposed projects and directly notifying tribes of all projects, whether they are located near any of the tribes or not.
Indian Affairs Commission Executive Director Scott Davis also has been working with the governor’s office to improve communication with the tribes. Davis’ office organized the recent conference. Davis cited the formation of a legislative committee charged with studying tribal taxation and other tribal-state issues as another example of improved communication.
More needs to be done. Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Mike Faith said there need to be partnerships between various law enforcement agencies to effectively combat drugs, as well as other crimes, on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There were other good ideas discussed during the conference. It’s going to take time to tackle some of these problems.
What bodes well for the future is the renewed effort to work together. John Fredericks III, legal counsel for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, said tribal leaders are working to change what was a more adversarial relationship with state government. "We're engaged now at the state Capitol," Fredericks said.
And Davis pointed out that "the governor has an open door."
If we continue to improve our ability to communicate it will be a major step to better relations and problem solving.