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Port: Two ways state lawmakers can heal relations with the state's tribes

columnist Rob Port

The end seems nigh for the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to push forward construction on that project with the Obama administration had delayed with political maneuvering. That move has already sparked outrage from the often violent political extremists still camped out in south central North Dakota, but they operate with less moral authority than they've had in past months.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, responding to a resolution passed by their people in the Cannon Ball community just south of the protest camps, has officially asked the activists to clean up their camps and go home.

Protesters who remain in the camp to carry out acts of violence and sabotage aimed at the pipeline's construction are now doing so in defiance of not only the federal government, and the State of North Dakota, but also the very tribe they claim to be representing.

Let's all hope the pipeline's construction is completed without the chaos and folderol we saw last year.

Let's also hope that state lawmakers can rise above some of the perfectly justifiable resentment they feel toward tribal leadership over the protests to find new ways to work with the tribes.

They have two opportunities before their current session, one symbolic and the other much more substantive.

The first is SB2286 introduced by state Sen. Richard Marcellais, a Democrat from Belcourt and member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. It's bipartisan — there are three Republicans among its five co-sponsors — and it's simple. It would require that flags representing all of the state's tribal nation be present in the House and Senate chambers as well in the state Supreme Court.

Symbolic, sure, but an important gesture I think. One which tells our tribal neighbors that they, too, are a part of our state.

The second opportunity is HB1412, introduced by Rep. Gretchen Dobervich, a Democrat from Fargo. There are no Republican sponsors for this legislation, but it is good policy.

It would require that the state's existing committee on tribal relations include the leaders of all of the state's tribes as well as the head of the state's Indian Affairs Commission (a position appointed by the Governor).

Currently these tribal representatives make up a task force which serves under the committee. This legislation would elevate the tribal leaders to full committee membership.

Gov. Doug Burgum has indicated that he wants to elevate and enhance government-to-government relations with our state's tribes. This legislation would be a long stride toward accomplishing that goal.

I think it's fair to say that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has not been a good neighbor in recent months. Chairman David Archambault II invited thousands of extremists to our state and, while they committed one criminal act after another, he sought distraction by casting aspersions at the men and women of law enforcement.

But lawmakers shouldn't base tribal relations going forward on Archambault's poor leadership. The importance of the relationship between the tribes and the State of North Dakota is much larger than a fight over a single pipeline.

If we work to improve those relationships, if we invite our tribal leaders more thoroughly into the governing process, we might even be able to avoid those conflicts in the future.

Or maybe we won't. But we shouldn't let that uncertainty stop us from trying.

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