Ivanka Trump visits MN to praise workers in Duluth, open office on missing Indigenous cases

People wearing red cut a ribbon.
From left, Myrna Warrington, tribal representative from the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, president of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Indians Shannon Hosley, Ivanka Trump and U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt cut a ribbon to open a cold case task force office for missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives in Bloomington, Minn., on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

President Donald Trump’s daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump made a quick swing through Minnesota Monday — first touring an iconic Duluth manufacturing business, then opening an office in Bloomington dedicated to investigating cold cases involving missing and murdered Native American women.

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt accompanied Trump on the tour. Northern Minnesota U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber also joined her to recognize Duluth Pack, which for more than a century has crafted handmade leather and canvas canoe packs and other outdoor gear at its small facility.

“This is a great story of American excellence in manufacturing, and a story of love and commitment to this great product and continuing the legacy of this formidable brand,” Trump said.

Presidential adviser Ivanka Trump takes a tour of Duluth Pack
Presidential adviser Ivanka Trump takes a tour of Duluth Pack with co-owners Tom Sega (left, partly hidden) and Mark Oestreich on Monday morning.
Steve Kuchera | Forum News Service

While Trump addressed reporters inside the company’s store in Duluth’s Canal Park tourist district, about 50 protesters could be heard outside.

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Some came to support the Black Lives Matter movement; others were there to advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women; others criticized the administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many also spoke out against the steps the Trump administration has taken to revive the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine outside Ely, Minn., just a couple miles from the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The Duluth Pack store is a common stop for visitors en route to the Boundary Waters, to pick up permits and to buy canoe gear for their trips.

“I find it astounding that a business in town which is so connected with protecting the environment would allow themselves to be used as a prop for the Trump administration,” said Angel Dobrow, who co-owns the Zenith Bookstore in Duluth.

Others took to social media to criticize Duluth Pack, calling for a boycott of the company for hosting the event.

Duluth Pack CEO Tom Sega didn’t take questions at the event, but signed a pledge to provide additional education and training opportunities to workers, “to continue to do what we’ve done for 138 years, make it formal, and bring it to a new level,” Sega said.

Earlier this year, Duluth Pack also began manufacturing medical gowns to help with the fight against the coronavirus, a move that Sega said allowed the company to bring employees back to work, and led the company to grow, even during the pandemic.

Duluth Pack’s Mark Oestreich,Tom Sega sign the Pledge to America's Workers
Duluth Pack’s Mark Oestreich (left) and Tom Sega sign the Pledge to America's Workers on Monday as U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, presidential adviser Ivanka Trump and Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt watch. Companies that sign the pledge commit to expanding programs that educate and train American workers.
Steve Kuchera | Forum News Service

In response to a question about the proposed Twin Metals mine, Interior Secretary Bernhardt noted that his teenage son has canoed in the Boundary Waters every summer since he was in the third or fourth grade, and said the administration will be “extremely rigorous” in evaluating the proposed mine, and vowed not to “sacrifice clean air or clean water for economic development.”

Outside of Duluth Pack, Rene Ann Goodrich with the Native Lives Matter Coalition held up a sign saying “No More MMIW” — short for missing and murdered Indigenous women. She criticized the Trump administration for not reaching out to local tribal leaders in advance of their office opening in Bloomington.

“It’s inappropriate for Ivanka to step in, who doesn’t have a history or background with the movement, without inviting local Native leaders. We’ve had enough of that. We have a history full of that. And we don’t need another white savior,” Goodrich said.

“Native women are not for show,” she added. “We’re not here as a talking point.”

Later Monday in Bloomington, Trump read from prepared comments before cutting the ribbon at what she called the nation’s first office to focus on unsolved cases of missing and murdered Native Americans.

“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.”

The office is run by a single staffer, Special Agent in Charge Michael Potter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. But Bernhardt said that Potter will be working with colleagues across all levels of government.

“They’ll be complimented by folks from other agencies. The entire point here is that we create a multijurisdictional approach and blow through what we perceive to potentially have been silos,” Bernhardt said.

While Native American women make up less than 1 percent of Minnesota’s population, they are overrepresented in homicide statistics. Between 1990 and 2016, Native women suffered seven times the homicide rate of white women, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Bernhardt said there are 136 unsolved cases.

The event opened with prayers from Larry Romanelli of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, a tribe based in Michigan, and Grace Goldtooth, vice president of the Lower Sioux Indian Community of south-central Minnesota.

But Native elected officials say they were not told of the Trump administration's initiative, nor of Monday’s event.

State Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, is of Lakota heritage and is co-chair of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force. Kunesh-Podein gathered with dozens of protesters outside the Bloomington office building as Trump delivered her remarks. 

Two people with masks sit next to a sign.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt, left, and senior adviser to the president Ivanka Trump sit during a press conference announcing the opening of a cold case task force office for missing and murdered Native Americans.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Kunesh-Podein said she’s hopeful that the new initiative will bring results. But she said no one from the Interior Department contacted her about it, nor did they reach out to Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the nation’s highest-ranking Native elected official.

“This visit from Ivanka Trump felt very disingenuous. It felt very scripted as a possible photo opportunity, perhaps an opportunity for campaign fodder for her father’s reelection,” Kunesh-Podein said.

The new office in Bloomington is part of the Operation Lady Justice Task Force created via executive order by President Trump in November to address violence against Native Americans, particularly women and girls. 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.

Over the next month, the Interior Department also plans to launch six additional cold case task force offices, including one in Rapid City, S.D. 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.