State and tribal relationships took a small but symbolic step forward Thursday during a ceremony to recognize the flags of North Dakota’s five tribal nations that are now on display at the state Capitol.
“It’s important to us because it means that we’re included and we’re thought of when we’re in the Capitol building,” said Alexis Davis, a member of the Turtle Mountain Youth Council. “For a long time we felt like we had a voice but no one was listening.”
The youth had joined other tribal members in urging Gov. Doug Burgum to display their nations’ flags at the state Capitol. Sen. Richard Marcellais, a former tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, had been trying since 2013 to have the tribal flags displayed at the Capitol, but North Dakota legislators rejected the idea three times.
Burgum, who took office during the Dakota Access Pipeline protest near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, has made tribal engagement a priority for his administration. He announced the decision to display the flags during his state of the state address earlier this month.
“We’re proud to have the flags displayed here in your Capitol, in everyone’s Capitol, outside of our office,” Burgum said during the ceremony in Memorial Hall.
Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Mike Faith said displaying the flags is a step toward repairing relationships that became strained during the protest.
“The road to recovery is not going to happen overnight. But I think working together, we can do that,” Faith said.
Spirit Lake Sioux Chairwoman Myra Pearson said relationships with the state have improved significantly in the past two years. In 2017, Pearson was scheduled to give the state of the tribes address, but legislators canceled the event, citing security concerns related to the pipeline protest. Pearson also was once asked by security to leave the state Capitol when she arrived on the same day as a protest event.
On Thursday, Pearson said it was an honor to have tribal flags recognized at the Capitol.
“It’s part of our healing,” Pearson said.
Leaders from the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate also participated in the ceremony, with each tribe explaining the history of their flags. Several veterans joined the ceremony, with MHA Nation Chairman Mark Fox drawing attention to the fact that Native Americans serve in the military at a higher rate than any other race in the United States.
Marcellais, D-Belcourt, who organized Thursday’s ceremony, said he was ready to introduce another bill to display the tribal flags before the governor made his announcement. His bill almost moved forward in 2017, receiving a 23-21 vote in the Senate. The bill failed to get a majority of senators because two members were absent that day.
“With the new governor’s administration, I see a change,” Marcellais said. “But I’m a person who looks for action and not words. We hope to get some action out of the tribal-state relations.”
State and tribal leaders said they hope the gesture helps improve cooperation.
“With a small, symbolic step, we take a big step forward in terms of understanding and building on the progress we can have as people who share this earth,” Burgum said.