Last week House Majority Leader Al Carlson dropped a bit of a bombshell on state politics. He announced a proposed constitutional amendment which would allow the state government to operate up to a half dozen casinos.
The state already has five casinos operated by tribal governments in Indian country, in addition to a limited amount of charitable gaming, and state-operated casinos would dilute that market in a big way. So not surprisingly there was a strong response from the tribal communities.
“It’s racist,” Senator Richard Marcellais (D-Belcourt), a former chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa who worked in that tribe’s casino at one point in his career, told the Associated Press. “I feel like going over there and knocking him through the window.”
On Friday I interviewed Chairman Mark Fox of the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation (they operate the Four Bears Casino which provides 300-400 jobs to that community) and he, too, saw Carlson’s proposal as an attack on tribal interests.
I asked Fox specifically if he agreed with Marcellais’ comments. “I’ll never try to explain exactly what he’s thinking in his head,” Fox told me, adding that he does “understand how certain people might react.”
“I won’t say I was immediately shocked,” he said of learning about the proposal, adding that his tribe “started out the session knowing something like this would be introduced.”
Asked if he felt the resolution was retaliation against the tribes for the months of violence and civil unrest caused by the tribal-led protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Fox acknowledged that there’s “a lot of racial tension that exists now in the state.”
“Whether or not this is related to that, I cannot precisely say that,” he continued.
Fox did say he wants to “commend the governor” for his outreach to tribal communities early in his first term. The Legislature canceled a traditional address to lawmakers by tribal leaders earlier this session, but Governor Doug Burgum met individually with tribal leaders and Fox said the meetings have gone well.
“We’ve got to get past it,” he said of the tension between tribal and non-tribal communities, adding that “many of the protesters” at the protest camps “were not tribal.”
He said that prior to the protests North Dakota and the tribal communities had years of good relations, and he’d like to see a return to that.
Here’s audio of the full interview: