Feds launch Minnesota office on missing Indigenous cases

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2020

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MINNEAPOLIS — Ivanka Trump and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited a Minneapolis suburb on Monday to open an office dedicated to investigating cold cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.

The new office in Bloomington is part of the Operation Lady Justice Task Force created via executive order by President Donald Trump in November to address violence against Native Americans, particularly women and girls, which advocates say are often overlooked by law enforcement across the country. The 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.

“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.”

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Of the more than 1,400 currently unresolved American Indian and Alaskan Native missing person cases nationwide, 136 are in Minnesota, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.

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. It’s the first of seven that will be opened across the country in coming weeks, including in Phoenix, Nashville, Tennessee and Anchorage, Alaska.

Dozens of protesters gathered outside of the new office, waving an American Indian Movement flag and carrying signs that read “Trusting Trump = Death” and “No More Stolen Sisters.” State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, who is of Standing Rock Lakota descent, joined protesters outside the new office.

“Our women are not photo opportunities,” she told protesters. “Our women are not for show.”

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. Minnesota Democrats said Monday the creation of the federal office is politically motivated and disingenuous, citing an attempt by the Trump administration to deny tribal nations COVID-19 relief funding.

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 American state officials before the visit Monday, and that she only learned of the cold case office after it was announced. The new office evokes “historic trauma” carried by Indigenous peoples of the federal government “setting things up and putting things in order for the good of the Indian people without taking into consideration their viewpoints, their wants and their needs,” she said.

“It sort of has the feeling of a pop-up department from the federal government, and without knowing exactly what it is about, it just feels very inauthentic,” she said.

Ivanka Trump did not take questions at the office opening. Bernhardt said state officials weren’t invited due to the small size of the venue and the focus on federal efforts, though he said they are open to working with the state task force. He referred questions of lack of support by Native American communities to the Trump campaign.

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.