BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Trump White House officials paid Minnesota a visit to open the first federal office dedicated to solving cold cases of missing and murdered Native Americans, but some have criticized the event as little more than a "photo opportunity."
The office opened on Monday, July 27, in Bloomington, steps away from the Mall of America, is the first of seven set to open across the country as part of the White House's Operation Lady Justice Task Force: a joint effort by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and Departments of Interior, Justice and Health to investigate and help end the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP).
Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Tara Katuk Sweeney — donning a red blouse, the color symbolic of the MMIP awareness movement — said Monday that Operation Lady Justice "addresses the deep concern of tribal leaders and their communities about the (MMIP) crisis."
The task force will collect and manage data on MMIP cases across jurisdictions (something that has never been done on a national scale before), establish protocols for new and unsolved cases, create multi-jurisdictional teams to investigate cold cases and help clear up jurisdictional confusion among local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies. Sweeney said the task force's findings will be reported directly to President Donald Trump.
Also in attendance and wearing red was First Daughter and White House Advisor Ivanka Trump, who said the rate of violence against Native people, particularly women and girls, is "a crisis of sobering and heartbreaking proportions." Trump also made an appearance in Duluth earlier Monday.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, more than 1,400 cases of missing Native people across the country remain open, 136 of which are in Minnesota, alone. Trump said Monday that in Minnesota, Native women are murdered at seven-times the rate of white women.
Nationwide, Native women in some areas are murdered 10-times more often than the national average, according to the Indian Law Resource Center. More than four in five Native women have experienced violence, and over half have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes.
Vice President of the Lower Sioux Nation Grace Goldtooth opened Monday's event noting that the Bloomington office stands on Dakota Native lands, and sang a Dakota women's song in honor of the Native women who haven't come home. She said the task force is "tremendous and truly humbling," and shows the importance of government-to-government relations between the United States and sovereign tribes.
"At the same time, it's very emotional thinking about all the women, all the stories never told," she said.
The event also drew criticism from other Minnesota leaders, plus a crowd of protesters outside of the venue. Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, D-New Brighton, said outside of Monday's event that she and other legislators who drafted the law establishing Minnesota's own MMIP task force were not informed of or invited to the Monday visit ahead of time. She said it appeared to her like a "photo opportunity" and "publicity event," and not a good-faith effort to work with stakeholders.
"It felt like a pop-up department," she continued. "You know how we have pop-up restaurants and shops all over? They’re here one minute and they're gone the next. They’re on to the next best thing. That’s how it feels like this might be to me."
Kunesh-Podein continued to say that there are "plenty" of pieces of legislation to federal government could push through to help address MMIP, like pushing Congress to re-authorize the Violence Against Women's Act, instead of using it like a "pawn."
"Our message is: Our women are not available for photo opportunities. They’re not a publicity stunt," Kunesh-Podein said. "And if they really want to do really good work for our Indigenous communities, then there are plenty of bills and actions and funding at the federal level that would make an immediate benefit, not just to Indigenous communities, but all our communities across the state and across the nation."