Native American communities have struggled to have their concerns heard on the national stage throughout this nation’s history—and on Thursday, Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro unveiled a new plan to help empower Indigenous communities. Making the announcement on Twitter, he wrote, “We cannot erase the history of how our nation has treated Indigenous peoples. But we can respect their sovereignty, honor our treaty commitments & make progress to ensure that all native communities thrive.”
Castro is the first candidate in the 2020 race to create a plan specifically addressing the concerns of Native communities. Pointing to his previous experience as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama, Castro described his discussions with Native communities across the US as “some of the most impactful of my entire career.”
The major cornerstone of Castro’s plan is a commitment to strengthening tribal sovereignty—he has stated his commitment to honoring the government’s treaty obligations and working with federally recognized tribes on a government-to-government basis. These commitments include fully funding the Indian Health Service, investing in the Indian Housing Block Grant program, codifying housing protections for Native American veterans, and greater investments in tribal school infrastructure. He’s also pledged to invest in programs that promote economic development and entrepreneurship, and to end leases with the fossil fuel industry that encroach on land with religious and cultural significance. These are just a short list of highlights—you can see the full list of proposed policies on Castro’s website.
He’s also pledged to create a White House Council on Indigenous Community Affairs to ensure their interests are represented at the decision-making table. He plans to reinstitute the annual White House Tribal Nations Conference, an event hosted throughout Obama’s term, which has not convened since Trump took office. By 2024, advisory committees would be established in every federal agency.
Castro has put a particular focus on strengthening protections for Native women, who face disproportionately high rates of sexual assault and violence. He hopes to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act for at least five years, and to roll back Trump’s new definition of “domestic violence” which downplayed the significance of psychological and emotional abuse. Another top priority would be repealing the Hyde amendment so that the Indian Health Service could provide abortion in communities that might otherwise not have access to comprehensive reproductive health services.
Finally, Castro pledged to eliminate barriers preventing Indigenous communities from fully participating in our democratic institutions. This would involve both expanding access to the polls and combatting efforts to disenfranchise marginalized communities like voter ID laws.
It’s a detailed plan that addresses a wide variety of political and legal issues currently faced by Native communities in the US, offering practical solutions to a number of ongoing problems. It should be interesting to see how the other Democratic candidates respond, and how they expand their platforms to address Native issues in the weeks ahead.