Tribal leader lauds N.D. legislative work

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – A temporary North Dakota legislative committee focusing on relations between American Indian tribal governments and the state should be made permanent, the chairwoman of the Spirit Lake Nation believes.

Myra Pearson, speaking to a joint session of the North Dakota House and Senate, said discussions in the interim Tribal and State Relations Committee have helped promote state aid to tribal colleges, sharing of oil and gas tax revenue and state income tax exemptions. “The positive relationship that has been forged between the tribal nations and the state of North Dakota has, in recent times, produced legislation resulting in positive changes and a continuing strengthening of our relationship.”

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Merle Boucher, D-Rolette, the House minority leader, said the panel’s meetings are productive even if they don’t necessarily lead to legislation. Boucher’s district includes the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation.

“The protocols and the processes of tribal government are different than state government,” Boucher said. “So when we visit back and forth, we learn how each other’s governments work.”

North Dakota’s Legislature meets in odd-numbered years, typically from January until mid- to late April. When the Legislature isn’t in session, interim committees study selected issues and draft bills for consideration.

Permanent interim committees are rare. During the last interim between the 2007 and 2009 sessions, there were 26 interim committees, only seven of which were permanently established in state law. The authorization for the Tribal and State Relations Committee ends Aug. 1.

Boucher and Sen. Richard Marcellais, D-Belcourt, agree with Pearson. Marcellais, who is chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said he would introduce legislation to make the tribal-state relations committee a permanent fixture.

“This last year, the senators and representatives came out to the reservations to conduct their meetings,” Marcellais said. “They got a better understanding of what we’re dealing with.”

Marcellais believes relations between state and tribal officials have improved in the last 10 years. “Communication is the key; educating the legislators regarding Native American issues and concerns helps, also.”

Pearson asked lawmakers to work on proposals that would help combat drug and alcohol abuse, increase education spending, improve rural health care and include the tribes in any federal economic stimulus legislation.

“The tribal nations feel strongly that an educated and skilled work force is the ultimate solution to many of our on-reservation problems,” she said. “We have a young and growing population who are an asset to our state and our tribes.”

Pearson said tribal and state leaders should work together to improve the standard of living for all citizens. “I remember a time, not so long ago, when everyday services like running water and electricity were nonexistent within the majority of reservation homes. In fact, they were considered luxuries.

“Today, as I drive through my community and visit my constituents, I see that reservation homes are finally receiving many of these same services that have been enjoyed in state communities for generations.”

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