Ivanka Trump headlines MMIW office opening

The US Indian Affairs Twitter account posted a tweet and photo of Ivanka Trump visiting an opening of an MMIW cold case office. Trump has received criticism from Native leaders and other groups that the event was phony and a photo op. (Indian Affairs Twitter)

Vincent Schilling

Visit draws sharp criticism from Lt. Gov. Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, and other Minnesota Democrats, who called it a ‘photo op’

Ivanka Trump and Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday attended the opening of a Bloomington, Minnesota, office devoted to investigating cold cases involving missing and murdered Native Americans.

The office is part of the Operation Lady Justice Task Force that President Donald Trump created through an executive order in November to address violence against Native Americans, particularly women and girls. It’s the first of seven such offices the administration is establishing across the country in coming weeks, including in Phoenix, Nashville, Tennessee, and Anchorage, Alaska.

(Related: Trump Administration establishes the first Cold Case Task Force Office for Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives)

“Since his earliest days in office, President Trump has fought for the forgotten men and women of this country,” Ivanka Trump said. “Today is another fulfillment of that promise as this new office will work to ensure that the challenges American Indians and Alaskan Natives face do not go unseen or unresolved.”

But the visit, which followed a tour of a Duluth factory, drew heavy criticism from Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, White Earth Ojibwe, and other Minnesota Democrats.

Peggy Flanagan talking in Minnesota - September 2019
Peggy Flanagan talking in Minnesota - September 2019 (Photo by Patty Talahongva)

More than 50 people gathered outside wearing red to signify the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's movement, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. They carried signs reading, "You are on stolen land" and "Stop pretending to care about Native Lives."

Critics called the event staged and disingenuous.

“We need to live up to the federal government's trust and treaty responsibilities to tribes. Donald Trump and his administration fall woefully short of that goal,” Sen. Tina Smith, a Democrat and member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a release. “Rather than a photo op, the Trump administration should focus on following through and real action to help tribal communities in Minnesota and across the country."

According to the National Crime Information Center, only 116 of the nearly 6,000 cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women were listed in 2016 in the Justice Department’s official database.

(Related: VAWA: Department of Justice to double funding for violence against Native women)

During Monday’s event, Ivanka Trump cited “tragic statistics” from the Minnesota Health Department, which found homicide rates for Native women were seven times higher than for white women between 1990 and 2016.

Those numbers are “simply unacceptable,” she said, according to the Star Tribune. “They do not just represent a problem; they're proof of an epidemic."

The office will be led by a special agent-in-charge from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services, and will coordinate efforts by local, federal and tribal law enforcement personnel to solve cold cases.

The Operation Lady Justice Task Force, co-chaired by Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William Barr, aims to develop protocols for law enforcement to respond to missing and slain Native American persons cases and to improve data and information collection.

Yet Flanagan said President Donald Trump “made a career demonstrating and celebrating behavior that perpetuates violence against Native women and girls.”

“We need a president who will fight for the health and safety of women and Native people across the country,” she said in a statement.

Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party also criticized the administration for “failing to seriously and materially support tribal nations.” Its members include state Reps. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a Standing Rock descendent, and Jamie Becker-Finn, a Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe descendant.

Kunesh-Podein said Ivanka Trump’s visit seemed phony.

Minnesota lawmakers established a state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls task force last year of elected officials, law enforcement and tribal representatives to make recommendations for the Legislature.

Kunesh-Podein, a co-chair and author of the bill that established the state task force, said the Trump administration didn’t reach out to the task force or other Native state officials before Monday's visit, and she only learned of the cold case office after it was announced. 

"We, in Minnesota, have worked so hard for a genuine, community-led task force to address our missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Kunesh-Podein said in a release. “This sudden interest and visit by Ivanka Trump feels disingenuous and smacks of manipulated political showcasing.”

(Previous story: Melania Trump talks Native children health)

Ivanka Trump tweeted late Monday that the Trump administration supports empowering tribal communities.

“This Admin is committed to advancing policies that empower tribal communities & ensure all Americans live w/ dignity & the promise of a brighter future. This historic day is another fulfillment of @realDonaldTrump‘s promise to always fight for the forgotten men & women across!” she wrote.

First lady Melania Trump is planning a visit to the Cherokee Nation.

The tribe last week posted an announcement on behalf of its chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr., stating: “We welcome First lady Melania Trump on her first visit to Cherokee Nation and we're excited to show her the advances tribal nations are making in the field of health care for Native people and children.”

Earlier this month, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington state sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy urging two pieces of legislation to address the violence against Indigenous women be considered by the House before its August recess. 

The two bills — Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act — passed unanimously in the House judiciary committee in March.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is on Twitter @VinceSchilling and Instagram @VinceSchilling.

Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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