Ivanka Trump headlined the opening Monday of a Bloomington office to investigate violence against Native American women, the second of two Minnesota stops less than 100 days before the presidential election.
The president's daughter and adviser, accompanied by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, was in Duluth earlier in the day to meet U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber for a tour of Duluth Pack, a factory and store known for its canvas and leather bags. Executives for the company, which employs about 80 people, signed the president's Pledge to American Workers, a commitment to worker education and training programs.
The office in Bloomington is the first of seven the Trump administration is establishing across the nation to investigate cold cases involving missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Both stops were met by protests and heavily criticized by Minnesota DFL leaders, who derided the tour as a "campaign photo op." Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Nation of Ojibwe, slammed the president for doing little to promote the health and safety of Native Americans while "demonstrating and celebrating behavior that perpetuates violence against Native women and girls."
More than 50 people gathered outside the event in Bloomington wearing the signature red color of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women's movement and carrying signs that said "you are on stolen land" and "stop pretending to care about Native Lives."
Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton, who descends from a member of the Standing Rock Lakota Sioux Tribe, said she wasn't contacted about the new office, despite the fact that she's the co-chair of a state task force working for more than a year on the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women.
"That is part of the historic trauma that our American Indians have carried for hundreds and hundreds of years, where the federal government is setting things up, putting things in order for the good of the Indian people and not taking into consideration their viewpoints," she said.
The Minnesota office will be staffed by one special agent, who will work with tribal communities and other law enforcement agencies to solve cold cases and develop better processes for handling future cases, Bernhardt said. He cited 136 unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous men and women in Minnesota, some dating back decades.
Native American women make up less than 1% of the state's population, but homicide rates for Native women were seven times higher than for white women between 1990 and 2016, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. Trump described it as a "dark pattern [that] is plaguing tribal communities across the country."
"These tragic statistics are simply unacceptable," she said. "They do not just represent a problem; they're proof of an epidemic."
Underscoring the political significance of the trip, the Republican National Committee issued a statement during Monday's tour saying the president "continues to deliver on his promises to put all Minnesotans first."
President Donald Trump has vowed to win Minnesota in 2020 after narrowly losing the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In northeastern Minnesota, he hopes to mimic the example of Stauber, who flipped the longtime Democratic Eighth District for the GOP with a comfortable win in the 2018 midterms.
"As so many people are experiencing tremendous vulnerability and fear, are thinking about the path forward ... I have no doubt. The president built the strongest economy in this country's history and he will do it once again," Ivanka Trump said.
The tug-of-war between mining and environmentalism has been a fiery political issue in northern Minnesota in recent years, prompting a small group of protesters to gather outside Duluth Pack's Canal Park store Monday. A woman held a sign that read "Start packing, Ivanka."
The Trump administration has reissued mineral leases to Twin Metals, a company looking to open a copper-nickel mine just outside the Boundary Waters. Opponents of the move, which has been tied up in court for months, say mining could harm the wilderness area.
Ivanka Trump and her husband, White House adviser Jared Kushner, rent a Washington, D.C., home that was bought by a U.S. real estate company owned by Andrónico Luksic, chairman of the Chilean company that owns Twin Metals. They have claimed the timing was a coincidence and that the transaction was done at arm's length. In response to a question about mining, Bernhardt said: "We will not sacrifice clean air or clean water for economic development."
Before the visit, some locals pledged on social media to boycott Duluth Pack, a 138-year-old company that started making canoe packs for early explorers of the Boundary Waters.
"It almost just feels like a big contradiction having this company support someone who's not supporting something like the Boundary Waters," said Jake Aldridge, a 23-year-old protester outside the store.
But CEO Tom Sega said others spoke with their wallets. The company had its biggest online sales day of the year Sunday after Trump's visit was announced.
"This is not a political statement," said Sega, who added that Duluth Pack has hosted politicians from both parties. "It doesn't matter what administration it is, we would welcome people who are supporting us — our company, and specifically and most importantly, our employees. This is a statement about our employees and how awesome they are."