Ivanka Trump visits Minnesota for opening of missing and murdered Native American cold case office

White House Advisor Ivanka Trump visited Bloomington, Minn. for the opening of the first Missing and Murdered Native American Cold Case Office. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior advisor Ivanka Trump visited Bloomington, Minn. Monday for the opening of a new office dedicated to investigating cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, arriving after making a stop in Duluth.

Tribal leaders and high-ranking officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs joined Trump for the ribbon cutting at the regional BIA office. Native activists and a Democratic state lawmaker outside the event protested what they called a political stunt by a key Trump campaign surrogate intending to capitalize on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

The new investigative office in Minnesota is one of seven that will open across the country as part of a White House task force created in November 2019 called “Operation Lady Justice,” aimed at ending the epidemic of violence against Native people.

There are more than 1,400 unresolved missing person cases involving Native Americans, 136 of which are in Minnesota.

“A dark pattern is plaguing tribal communities,” said Ivanka Trump, wearing a red suit, symbolic of the MMIWG movement. “President Trump has recognized the prevalence of violence and abuse within American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, calling it a crisis of sobering and heartbreaking proportions.”

Native women are much more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence, sex trafficking and murder than other groups. One in three Native women is sexually assaulted during her life, and the vast majority of perpetrators are non-Native, according to a National Institute of Justice report.

Young Native women are particularly vulnerable. Homicide is the third leading cause of death among Native girls and women aged 10 to 24, and it’s the fifth leading cause of death for Native women aged 25 to 34, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The epidemic extends to men and boys as well. More than four out of every five Native people have experienced violence.

Protestors wait for Ivanka Trump to leave the Bloomington building she visited for the opening of the first cold case office for missing and murdered Native Americans. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs and tribal member of the Native Village of Barrow Traditional Iñupiat Government in Alaska, praised the president and First Daughter.

“No one is a bigger advocate and leader for women and women empowerment and criminal justice issues,” she said. “As a Native woman, I am humbled and proud that we are all here to witness and celebrate this historic milestone.”

In addition to trying to solve cold cases, the task forces will also establish new investigative protocols and teams made up of local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies.

The offices will also begin collecting and managing data on missing and murdered Native people, which is not currently done at a national scale, likely hiding the true extent of violence.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt connected the cold case offices to discussions of defunding and dismantling police departments following the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis just two months earlier.

“At a time when some are calling for the defunding or redistribution of law enforcement efforts, let me say this is one example of why we must be robust in our law enforcement efforts,” Bernhardt said.

Among those in attendance were tribal leaders from across the upper Midwest including the White Earth Nation, the Menominee Indian Tribe, the Lower Sioux Community and the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians.

But the ribbon cutting ceremony didn’t sit well with dozens of Native activists and local leaders, who showed up to the Bloomington office to protest the First Daughter’s visit.

Representative Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, addresses demonstrators outside the new cold case office. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

“When the federal government comes in and creates this new office and did not reach out to our communities and did not reach out to the task force members to be part of the planning, it just feels disingenuous and feels a little bit like a political campaign,” said Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, a descendant of the Standing Rock Lakota.

Kunesh-Podein chairs Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, which was formed just days before President Trump formed Operation Lady Justice.

The activists carrying hand drums and signs with pictures of their missing or murdered relatives, tried to block off the exits of the parking lot, but Trump’s detail was able to skirt around them. They then formed a giant circle for a round dance.

Mysti Babineau, a climate organizer with MN350 and member of the Red Lake Nation, pointed to President Trump’s support for pipelines and copper-nickel mining as a sign that he is being disingenuous in his Indigenous outreach.

Pipeline projects can fuel violence against Native women when transient workers move near rural reservations and set up “man camps.”

“One of the things they do with that money is they like to buy women that they can use and dispose of. That’s what these man camps bring to our communities. They bring degradation, rape and murder,” Babineau said.

Reformer reporter Ricardo Lopez contributed reporting.

Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.