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Julián Castro On Fixing The Federal Relationship With Indigenous Peoples: 'We've Slid Backward Under Trump'

The presidential candidate spoke with MTV News about why doing right by Native peoples isn't just a matter of policy — it's cultural, too.

From social media to the ballot boxes, Native peoples are making their voices heard. In 2020, Native American voter turnout is expected to rise, and in battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, Nevada, and North Carolina, gaining the trust and support of Native voters — most of whom tend to support Democratic candidates — could have a massive impact on the results of the 2020 election.

Some presidential candidates have seemingly gotten the memo that it's been far past time to provide outreach to Indigenous peoples. Among them is former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, who in July introduced the People First Indigenous Communities plan with the aims to both respect the sovereignty of tribal nations and Indigenous groups and strengthen their support systems within the federal U.S. government.

The plan features five areas of focus: honoring tribal sovereignty and strengthening Native presence in the federal government; honoring treaty commitments made by the federal government to native communities; seeking justice for Indigenous women and fixing the jurisdictional quagmires that often allow perpetrators to target them with few repercussions; supporting Native communities whose right to vote has consistently been undermined by suppressive laws; and committing to supporting Native peoples throughout the continental Americas. As Vox points out, Native activists have pushed for many of these changes for years; that politicians are finally working to acknowledge and honor that work is a much-needed, and overdue, step in the right direction.

Castro's plan was a first for the 2020 pack and marked a pretty significant shift in the ways that candidates approach outreach and engagement with Native peoples. (Another candidate, Elizabeth Warren, has previously been taken to task for her past claims of Native ancestry. She has since apologized repeatedly, and revealed a plan of her own a few weeks after Castro unveiled his.) Engagement between candidates and Native communities has also been marked by a commitment to appear at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City, Iowa, on August 19 and 20 — the first of its kind to focus entirely on Native issues. The Native American Rights Fund explained that they had extended invitations to "all major Democratic and Republican candidates," which 10 Democratic hopefuls accepted; Mark Charles, a member of the Navajo Nation who is running as an Independent candidate, also attended the forum.

Ahead of his August 20 appearance at the forum, Castro spoke with MTV News about how the plan came about, why listening to what Native peoples and communities have to say is integral to the work that needs to be done, and why no policy is complete without a shift in cultural thinking, too. For the last one, he thanks Native activists on social media for paving the way — but also acknowledges it's up to those in traditional seats of power to do their part, too.

MTV News: How did the People First Indigenous Communities plan come about, and what kind of alerted you to its necessity?

Sec. Castro: Working with the tribal communities when I was HUD secretary, I saw the deepest poverty of anywhere in the nation. When I visited Pine Ridge in, I believe it was 2015, I had the opportunity to see first-hand a lot of the challenges that Indigenous communities face and hear about those challenges, whether they're land-based tribes or non-land-based tribes.

Our team sat down with advocates for Indigenous communities to understand the scope of investments that need to be made and different issues that should be tackled in years to come. As you know, the plan we have — from health care to respecting tribal sovereignty, and creating a stronger nation-to-nation relationship — re-implements some of the things that [President] Obama did, like the White House Tribal Nations Conference. So the way that our team worked it up was to listen and learn directly about the needs of Indigenous communities.

MTV News: Since the rollout of your plan, we've also seen Elizabeth Warren's plan, as well as other concerted efforts to reach out to Indigenous peoples, like the commitment to attend the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum. But why do you think it took so long for candidates from any party to make a concerted effort towards Indigenous communities?

Sec. Castro: There's no question that Indigenous communities have been terribly overlooked, neglected, under-invested in, and mistreated in years past. I'm proud that I was part of an administration that began to improve that relationship and take it more seriously. The Obama administration was a much stronger partner than most administrations had been in the past, but now we have to build on that, especially because we've slid backward under Trump.

MTV News: Historically, Indigenous peoples have plenty of reasons to be wary of the federal government, and that can affect census response, voting, and so many more issues. How would you work to earn that trust back?

Sec. Castro: First, I would approach our Indigenous communities with humility, and respect, and a willingness to listen and learn and understand the peer-to-peer role that we play. Secondly, you have to be serious about following through on the promises we made, whether it's investments that we're calling for, or treaties we want to recognize, or powers that we want to grant. For instance, as you saw in the policy, I've said that before any major infrastructure projects happen over tribal land or on tribal land, that there should not only be consultation — there should be consent.

MTV News: In your meetings with tribal leaders and people from different sovereign nations, what have you learned so far, or opened your eyes to with regard to certain experiences and obstacles being placed in their way?

Sec. Castro: I mean, in the housing context, I learned about the tremendous lack of good housing stock on most tribal lands and the way the needs are so connected there. When I went to Pine Ridge, and this applies, I'm sure, to other Indigenous lands, they talked to me about the real challenge of economic development and jobs and the fact that Pine Ridge is so far away from a major employment center. So all of these issues of jobs, transportation, housing — they're all connected.

MTV News: If we can talk about that connectivity for a second — a lot of Native peoples were in real danger during the polar vortex last year because, as you said, their housing puts them at far greater risk during extreme climate moments. But many reservations also account for some of the poorest counties in the U.S., so there is very little money or infrastructure to fix these issues. How would you approach assistance and empowerment just from an intersectional perspective?

Sec. Castro: Well, I believe we need to come up with new spending for housing on Native lands. And I've called for a very ambitious investment in housing that is affordable. And I certainly see Native communities as included in that.

MTV News: We’ve seen a lot of young Native people — like Allen Salway, @lilnativeboy on Twitter; the actor Sivan Alyra Rose; and model Daunnette Reyome —  who are mobilizing by using social media to make their voices heard and combat a lot of misinformation about their realities. How crucial is the youth voice to your plan, and to your vision?

Sec. Castro: Young people are very important to this vision because our hope is that this generation, number one, will take the United States in a different path of actually living up to its obligations and recognizing the contribution that Native people have made to this nation over the years. The young people are a generation that has, I believe, a real appreciation for differences among all of us, and are willing to celebrate that. So that presents a real opportunity for people to strengthen cross-cultural understanding.

MTV News: What role do you think mobilizing on social media specifically has played in dispelling stereotypes and breaking down harmful myths?

Sec. Castro: I think social media is so powerful now that it does play a significant role. Frankly, we're all on Twitter and other platforms, and so it has direct relevance. And so I would encourage all of the young people and the young-at-heart folks who are out there trying to dispel those myths and trying to pursue a vision of inclusion and empowerment for Native communities to keep it up because it needs an overall strategy.

MTV News: There's a pervasive amount of miseducation in the mainstream about the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, from the real meaning of Thanksgiving to... when I went to public elementary school in California, the curriculum largely framed the Spanish missions as a good thing rather than a testament to forced assimilation and genocide. How would you push for a shift in the narrative to be more accurate for centuries of wrongs against tribal nations?

Sec. Castro: We need to start early. I support changing the content of textbooks. We need to make sure that from the very beginning when students learn about Native communities that they have history that is accurate, that reflects a full perspective of what happened in history without a slanted or caricatured perspective, which is generally what people have learned.

MTV News: Those caricatures permeate into a lot of current pop culture: People appropriate headdresses and warbonnets at Coachella, and several sports teams are still using offensive names and mascots, including literal slurs, as is the case of the Washington team. The State of Maine recently banned public school sports teams from participating in Native appropriation, but sports teams in the NFL and other federations are private enterprises. Given there are Supreme Court decisions about the trademarking of certain terms, how do you hope the conversation evolves from here?

Sec. Castro: I would like to listen to learn from Native communities on what the best way to do that is and how we should shape that in the future. But I'm absolutely willing to work on it.

I also hope that [the conversation] grows, especially to our big media. Hollywood has a role to play, because they oftentimes further a lot of the stereotypes, too. Obviously, broadcast networks and cable networks have a tremendous role to play in their programming and how they highlight, or many times don't highlight enough, the contributions of Native Americans and the reality of both their successes and their continuing challenges. So there just needs to be a lot more awareness and also programming and opportunities that are afforded for Native communities to speak their truth and for that to be reflected in the popular culture and in our educational experience.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.