A “People First Indigenous Communities Policy” Or a Communities First Indigenous Peoples Policy. Either Way…

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro has released a proposal for American Indian policy should he be elected. While this may or may not elevate this consistently impressive candidate to the front of the crowded field, it is consequential. The San Antonio Express News announced that “Castro Outflanks Rivals with Plan for Native Americans.” Buzzfeed ran with the headline, “This Democratic Candidate Has the First Plan to Fix the Disparities Faced by the Native American Community.” Vox announced, “Castro Unveils Ambitious Plan to Empower Native American Communities.” If Elizabeth Warren “has a plan for that,” increasingly so too does Castro.

For generations, according to Castro’s policy statement, “Indigenous communities have been treated as second-class citizens rather than sovereign tribal nations free to determine their destiny.” The United States has failed to honor its obligations under treaty and law, and has failed to “respect unique government-to-government relationships.” Meanwhile, it allows “corporations to exploit sacred land for their own profits.”

Castro pointed out that this history has had huge consequences, and has resulted in significant and deeply entrenched inequality and injustice. The United States created these problems, he suggests, and must work with Native American communities to fix them. It is a thorough indictment, based on sound reading and a command of the issues. Castro saw some of these problems first hand when he served as HUD Secretary under President Obama, and gained some experience then working with tribal communities.

As President, Castro asserts, “I will partner with indigenous communities for a fairer and more prosperous future.” This is, in a sense, what the law requires, but Castro shows an awareness of the problems–of the weight of historical injustice–much deeper than we shall ever see from the Trump Administration.

Castro’s plan contains five major provisions: Strengthening Tribal Sovereignty, Honoring Treaty Commitments, Justice for Indigenous Women, Eliminating Barriers to Democratic Participation, and Partnering with Indigenous Communities Throughout the Americas. Each of these contains several specific proposals. Some of them are ideas that have been around for quite some time. Some of them require rolling back Trump Administration policies damaging to native peoples. Castro, for instance, would change the current administration’s definition of domestic violence to one that includes “psychological abuse and other non-violent actions.” Some of these proposals are important, innovative, and entirely new.

The entire proposal shows a candidate aware of a complex set of policy questions in all of its depth, who has a staff with enough expertise to produce a proposal that is informed, aware, and actionable. Castro’s knowledge of these issues is up-to-date. The Democrats have many capable candidates, but none of them have spoken as forcefully on Native American issues. I have no idea who will win the Democratic nomination, or if Castro will be around at the end of the race, but this proposal is truly significant. I cannot remember a candidate this early producing so thorough a plan. Should you choose to discuss it with your students, or read it yourself, you can do so right here.

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