In the U.S. there are more than 1400 unresolved American Indian and Alaska Native missing person cases. 136 of those cases are in Minnesota, according to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
Several top federal officials were in Bloomington, on July 27th to announce the creation of a new office dedicated to solving these cold cases. Minnesota’s office will be the first of seven across the country.
Officials on hand for the announcement included David Bernhardt, who is the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Tara Katuk Sweeney, who is the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, and Ivanka Trump, a Senior Advisor and daughter of the President.
But the announcement was a surprise to Native leaders in MN who have been working tirelessly for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives.
Minnesota has long stood with families of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. Songs, prayers, powwows, events, and marches have brought awareness to the vast and deeply painful reality of what is recognized as an epidemic all the while supporting and building community.
Minnesota has a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, lead by strong MN Native Voices, that has been bearing the responsibility for doing this difficult work. Which is why leaders were surprised and concerned when this announcement came:
“I want to welcome all of you to the official and long awaited opening of the missing and murdered cold case office here in Bloomington, Minnesota,” said Tara Sweeney, who is Alaskan Native, and the Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior.
This new Cold Case office grew out of The Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, also known as Operation Lady Justice, which was formed under Executive Order signed in November 2019.
“The mandate of operation Lady Justice is to enhance the operation of the criminal justice system and address the legitimate concerns of American Indian and Alaska native communities regarding missing and murdered people.” said Sweeney.
The goal of solving cold cases is widely supported. Yet, what raised alarms was how the administration left out voices from the communities it’s supposed to serve when announcing a Cold Case office in the Twin Cities.
State Representative, and descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Mary Kunesh-Podein is the chair of MN’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s taskforce. She spoke at the rally held near the Bureau of Indian Affairs, expressing concerns about the administration’s sudden actions.
“It was the first time I heard about it. I reached out to other elected officials and other people that were working on our task force and nobody knew anything about it,” Kunesh-Podein said.
“We want to work with the federal government, but when the federal government creates these kind of bureaucratic departments without the collaboration, without the voices of the people they are supposed to be protecting that they are investing in. That gives us a question. What is the mission of this department? We cannot find any information anywhere.” said Kunesh-Podein
Rep Mary Kunesh-Podein has listed several ways a real difference can be made. Including passing the 2020 Violence Against Women Act.
“That is the first thing they need to do, because that provides those extra protections for our women and our children, especially on reservation.” said Kunesh-Podein
Bois Forte Elder Sharon Day was also at the rally.
“It’s just really kind of a slap in the face to people who’ve been doing the work for so long.” said Day.
Sharon and I talked about Ivanka Trump’s speech which stressed that her father’s administration is committed to pushing forward policies empowering tribal communities.
“We know it’s not true. He’s been trying to push through environmental policies that will hurt us. He’s fought to get these pipelines and he’s undone everything that’s been done to protect the environment.” said Day
Reporter: In my conversation with Sharon Day the red flags keep adding up that show the inconsistency of the administration’s commitment to protecting Missing and Murdered Indigenous People.
Another voice expressing concern is State Representative and Anishinaabekwe, Jamie Becker Finn. She posted this statement on social media.
“Donald Trump repeatedly uses derogatory slurs and phrases to refer to Native people. And in particular Native women, as early as this spring as administration dragged their feet and getting needed COVID relief funds out to tribal nations.” said Becker Finn.
Donald Trump’s decades of hostility towards indigenous people can not be undone with one cheap political stunt.
Mary Kunesh Podein: “Once again have been left out of that conversation, we’re once again are being told, “we’re going to do this for you,” but they are not saying we’re going to do this with you. And so at the end, it leads to the question, why are you doing this? And our response to that is that our women are not for show. They’re not a photo opportunity.” said Mary Kunesh-Podein
For Minnesota Native News, I’m Leah Lemm.