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Burgum off to good start with native initiative

Most of Gov. Doug Burgum's first State of the State address Tuesday, Jan. 3, to the North Dakota Legislature was without surprises. He stressed what he's been stressing since he began his run for governor: State government can do better by being leaner and adopting efficiencies. He anticipates more budget cuts because of shrinking revenues. It was general, with specifics to come when the governor and his team settle into office.

But there was a surprise that could have significant import. Burgum ventured into uncharted territory (for a North Dakota governor) when he spoke about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the context of the experiences of Native Americans in North Dakota. He said the pipeline conflict cannot be fully understood without acknowledging beliefs of native people regarding their treatment by the majority culture for 150 years. It was a startlingly honest assessment of a less-than-honorable history that goes back as far as Dakota Territory. It was a sincere expression of Burgum's determination to improve relations between tribes and the state, even as he said he was as determined to find an end to the protests, clean up the protest site, and get the controversial oil pipeline project underway again.

Legislators listened politely. Republicans applauded because, well, Burgum is a Republican. Democrats applauded because they have always seen themselves as champions of native people. But make no mistake about it: The Legislature's concern about Native American issues has been (until the pipeline protest) about as deep as an oil slick.

The state's mantra is that the social pathologies on reservations are federal matters. Unless, of course, it's about oil taxes, wherein the state finds a way to work with oil-rich tribes. For their part, tribal leaders play the sovereignty card when they don't want to cooperate with the state, and deal the dependency/white guilt card when they want help from Uncle Sugar or the state. It's been a flawed system for generations.

To his credit, the governor is challenging an endemic cultural actuality. Traditionally, state and tribal leaders have given lip service to cooperation, but have rarely developed meaningful, long-lasting, genuine working relationships. It is a difficult thing to do because mutual trust has been eroded by years of self-serving posturing among state and tribal leaders. It is a difficult thing to do because sincerely motivated people in state and tribal governments must deal with politics and biases in their respective communities.

Newly minted Gov. Burgum has extended a hand. It's a good start.

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