North Dakota’s New Governor Misses Standing Rock Moment

A YouTube video from North Dakota’s new Gov. Doug Burgum. More of the same about Standing Rock.

A YouTube video from North Dakota’s new Gov. Doug Burgum. More of the same about Standing Rock.

Guest Commentary

Published December 17, 2016

Mark Trahant / Trahant Reports

There is that moment when we take the plastic protection off a new phone screen. Everything was perfect until we peel it away. Then fingerprints, scratches, and the business of life take hold. That new thing is never the same.

That’s exactly where Doug Burgum was as the new governor of North Dakota. He could have taken that screen and made certain that there was a new image of North Dakota for the world to see.

Damn. Think about what was possible: A governor who is framing his entire administration on innovation just dismissed the most disruptive force in his state’s recent history. That is what Standing Rock is about. Instead of saying, “What can we learn from this? What can we do together?” The new governor relied on the screen saver that was there before; the idea that powerful forces will roll over the tribe and build the Dakota Access Pipeline without interference. Thank you.

Burgum also scratched away at an old story: The Obama administration created this problem.

But his larger message is that the state of North Dakota and its corporate partners are more powerful than any tribal government. Instead of a pause, a moment to engage in a government-to-government dialogue, the new governor emphatically says the pipeline will get built soon. No. Matter. What.

“Make no mistake, this infrastructure is good for our economy,” the governor said in his YouTube video. “And it’s the safest way to transport North Dakota products. Failure to finish it would send a chilling signal to those in any industry who wish invest in our state and play by the rules.”

But the rules are complicated. And the court cases are not resolved. In fact the governor could have taken advantage of the litigation schedule to begin an open dialogue. Even more important: The prospect of more litigation is growing and that is something that will not be resolved by the Trump administration. It will take time.

The new governor could have reset the law enforcement battle lines too. Nope. “As a result of the Obama administration’s refusal to uphold the rule of law on federally owned land, both our citizens and local and state law enforcement have been put in harm’s way,” he said. “These actions are putting daily demands on the scarce resources of our state and local government.”

Those daily demands are because the state of North Dakota made it so. Pick a word: defuse, de-escalate, negotiate. There were so many better alternatives, ones that were dismissed in favor of sending in the cavalry. I have interviewed many government officials over the years that successfully reduced tension instead of using the police powers of a state. In every test the state failed in this regard and the new governor is following the same path.

Mark Trahant

Mark Trahant

I had hopes that Gov. Burgum would see the potential of the Standing Rock story as one that could make North Dakota a beacon. Think about this: This moment in history has brought indigenous people together in a way that’s unprecedented. And the world is paying attention to that. What an amazing opportunity, something that could stir the imagination of investors, entrepreneurs, and governments. Potential partners in a state that found a solution by working with tribes to solve an intractable problem.

The former governor blamed social media for this global perception. But that misses the point that the Standing Rock Tribe owns the story. And that won’t change because the new governor posts a video his account. The problem is not social media. It’s the message that the State of North Dakota will use the rule of law, the police power of a state, to roll over a tribal nation. It’s a message of brut force instead of inspiration.

A missed opportunity? Sadly, yes. The governor says he will meet with tribes. But in North Dakota the context is business as usual. The plastic is off. And the new screen is already scratched.

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports

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