Pledging to bring justice for Native American families afflicted by higher rates of violence, homicide and human trafficking, Ivanka Trump announced the opening Monday in Minnesota of the nation’s first Indian Affairs task force office dedicated to solving cold cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Trump, a senior White House adviser who is the president’s daughter, joined Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to promote the office and the launches of six other task force locations next month in Rapid City, South Dakota; Billings, Montana; Nashville, Tennessee; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix; and Anchorage, Alaska.
But Trump’s arrival in Bloomington, a Twin Cities suburb, drew rebuke from Democratic lawmakers and dozens of protesters, including Native American women who remain skeptical of the Trump administration’s commitment to resolving the root causes of violence against Indigenous women and providing adequate federal resources.
Many asked where Trump and the administration had been the past few years, as various reports have highlighted the underreporting of violence against Indigenous women and as the murder of a 22-year-old pregnant woman in North Dakota in 2017 brought rare bipartisan interest from members of Congress.
“We, in Minnesota, had worked so hard for a genuine, community-led task force to address our missing and murdered Indigenous women,” state Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, a member of the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party who is a descendant of the Standing Rock Lakota tribe, said in a statement. “This sudden interest and visit by Ivanka Trump feels disingenuous and smacks of manipulated political showcasing.”
Trump, however, told reporters that she was concerned by federal data that showed higher rates of violence and homicide in tribal communities. Native American women, she said, make up less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s population, yet they have been killed at a rate seven times that of white women.
“Indian Country enriches the fabric of our great nation on every level … yet a dark pattern is plaguing tribal communities across the country,” she said.
“They do not just represent a problem — they’re proof of an epidemic,” she continued, adding that the federal government’s initiative, known as Operation Lady Justice, was formed in November as a way for the Justice Department to partner with tribal governments and combat violence and human trafficking.
In a series of statements, Minnesota Democrats blasted Trump’s appearance as a “campaign photo op” and a “cheap media stunt” and said President Donald Trump hasn’t shown himself to be sincere about helping tribal communities. They accuse him of supporting energy projects and environmental policies that don’t protect sacred lands, repeating a nickname for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in a derogatory manner and failing to appropriately recognize systemic racism and racial injustices, particularly in a place like Minneapolis, where police brutality protests raged over the spring.
“Donald Trump made a career demonstrating and celebrating behavior that perpetuates violence against Native women and girls,” Minnesota Lt. Gov. Penny Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said in a statement.
Kunesh-Podein tweeted that she was blindsided by the opening of a federal office in Minnesota, given that she is chair of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, and she called the announcement a “dog & pony show.”
At Monday’s opening, Bernhardt said the goal for the task force offices will be to help crack the more than 1,400 cold cases that remain open across the country. He said the need to assist Native American and Alaska Native families whose loved ones have been killed or remain missing is an example of why police departments must not be defunded, as activists have called for in recent weeks, and law enforcement should remain “robust.”
It wasn’t immediately clear how the task force offices will be staffed and the extent of the involvement of local tribal jurisdictions.
Annita Lucchesi, a Cheyenne descendant who started the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which maps cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in a database, said the task force offices won’t be effective if Native American families don’t feel heard and can’t trust the people staffing them.
“We take the time to build those relationships,” said Lucchesi, who said her college thesis tackling the issue of genocide was related to her experience as a survivor of human trafficking and sexual violence.
According to a report she co-authored, in 2016, there were 5,712 reports of missing Indigenous women and girls based on National Crime Information Center data; some cases were likely repeated. The same year, the Justice Department’s missing persons database logged only 116 cases.
“We were able to get more information by looking at the cases and finding holes in the investigation,” Lucchesi said. “It can’t just be the FBI and law enforcement, because they don’t always have the trust of the families.”
So far, Operation Lady Justice has been “disappointing,” she said. A listening session in June held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic was marred by technical difficulties, and speakers were cut off because they were given only three minutes to talk.
Before the operation, a decades-old case in Montana drew renewed attention last summer over a lawsuit that alleged that the FBI investigator made racist remarks against Native Americans and ignored testimony.
Longstanding distrust of the federal government and law enforcement and their perceived lack of interest has been a barrier in many of the cases of missing and murdered women, said Walter Fleming, a member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Kansas who is the head of Montana State University’s Native American studies department.
A fundamental challenge is that cases, especially those involving sex trafficking, can cross tribal, local, state and federal jurisdictions, so every agency needs to have a working relationship and communication, Fleming said.
“A particular state can respond, but that’s not a big enough net when women going missing many, many miles away,” he said.
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In addition to cases of murdered and missing women and girls, the national conversation on policing and racial bias has also turned attention to the number of Native Americans who have been killed at the hands of police and people’s misgivings in response to the criminal justice system.
The suburban Minneapolis task force office is especially meaningful, Fleming said, because the American Indian Movement, a grassroots organization that has protested against police brutality and poverty, began in the city in 1968, seeking to hold the federal government accountable on Indigenous and civil rights issues.
Increased federal assistance with cold cases can be beneficial, Fleming said, but he added that understanding violence and trafficking in tribal communities and getting to the core of why they persist are necessary work that goes beyond simply opening an office.
“This curiously stands out as something that obviously is positive,” he said, “but the cynical part may say it’s election-year pandering.”