Women's History Month 2021: Interview with Rep. Christina Haswood
For March, Women's History Month, the Academy’s Executive Director, Barbara Faedda, has already interviewed Senator Valeria Valente and Professor Marina Calloni. Now Dr. Faedda speaks to Christina Haswood, the new Native American member of the Kansas House of Representatives. Rep. Haswood, elected at just 26 years of age, made national news with a TikTok video recorded as she was sworn in while clothed in Navajo attire. In this interview, she reflects on Native women in leadership, Diné (Navajo) identity, the discrimination against and the genocide of Indigenous peoples, life on and off the reservation, the role of education, opportunities for youth, the impact of COVID-19, and more.
Representative Haswood, you are considered a rising star in progressive politics, in the representation of women of color, and in Native initiatives. You are a young Native woman who decided not only to go into politics but also to communicate your political actions—as well as your cultural identity—through social media. You have reached young people (rare for a politician) by showing young Native people that their ideals and passion can bring them opportunities. How did your Native background shape your political mission? How do you make your political goals work with your cultural identity?
Being a Diné (Navajo) young woman is who I am, and I was raised on Diné values. It has also guided my higher education journey in public health—and with a focus on holistic health. Bridging these two together, as well as throwing into the mix having been born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas, has all shaped my political ideologies and values. I believe they all share values of caring for your community, equity, equality, and improving health and well-being.
I do not think there’s an automatic connection between being an Indigenous person and one’s political ideologies. In my tribe, we have Navajo conservative Republicans and those who may identify as Independent or have mistrust in the governmental system and feel as if it’s not even worth participating. Even in our elections for tribal government within the Navajo Nation, there are no Republican or Democrat candidates. I would say my political values are from the values I was raised with by my parents: to take care of yourself, your community, your elders, the young, Mother Earth, and your family. This sounds like public health and the holistic health approach, physical health, and spiritual, mental, and environmental health. I was taught public health in the Summer Research Enhancement Program at Diné College with the Navajo education model, so I believe that is why public health, my political values, and culture all blend.
When you were sworn into the Kansas House of Representatives, on January 11, 2021, you wore your traditional Navajo clothes, adornments, and jewelry. You posted a TikTok video showing each step of your dressing in traditional garments and preparing to be sworn into your new institutional position. You explained that you were not just representing your culture—you were sharing your culture with others. What were your cultural and political motivations, and what message(s) did you want to convey? How do you creatively and successfully combine your Native and non-Native clothing and lifestyle?
I wanted to show everyone that we are still here. Anything that happened in this building that tried to dehumanize—take away our rights as Native Americans—did not work. The history with Native Americans and government is a history of genocide, discrimination, and intimidation. Who knows what attempts, conversations, or legislation was talked about or passed out of the Kansas Capitol that tried to “get rid of us”? Whatever happened, it did not work, because we have three Native women in the Kansas Legislature now. Wearing my traditional outfit was a visualization of what I just said, above. I also knew there would be some media eyes on me for this special day—that I wanted all those little Native kids to see themselves in this position. That being a politician should be a career choice, and not just a dream, as it was once to me. Representation matters. My action of making it into a TikTok was just footage I wanted to keep for myself, to reference when I want to look back on in that day.
Combining Navajo attire and modern attire is this movement a lot of Indigenous peoples are doing. Many great artists are designing their fabrics with their cultural patterns and making them into modern styles of clothing. There are a lot of other Indigenous folks who take pieces of their traditional clothing from their tribe and incorporate it into everyday wear. I think the biggest challenge in this, from my personal experience, is being comfortable enough to stand out and prepare for the questions and stares. Once you develop that level of confidence, I think you can wear just about anything! My usual combinations include wearing a three-tiered Navajo skirt (handmade by me or my mother), with a business casual top, sometimes my Navajo moccasins or some cowboy boots, and my sash belt and concho belt. I am still learning how to tie my hair into a Navajo bun, but that’s my next thing to master.
In a more contemporary Native fashion, I bead my own earrings or buy from other Indigenous artists. I also buy silver and turquoise jewelry on the Navajo Reservation at flea markets when I go back home and visit family (pre-pandemic). These little pieces of jewelry, such as earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, are easier to incorporate into everyday wear, as many fashion companies steal these designs or culturally appropriate them into our modern fashion.
You represent Native people raised in urban settings: you are an urban Native American. Your parents left the reservation many years ago and moved to the city, where you grew up, studied, and trained professionally. How do you manage this belonging to different—yet connected—environmental, social, and cultural contexts? Do you think that your political mission would have been different if your parents hadn't left the reservation?
It’s honestly this constant balance of continuously learning my culture but learning Western cultural values and education. I am thankful to have the help of my immediate family who always made visiting family back on the reservation a priority. I grew up road-tripping from Kansas to the Navajo Nation (both sides of my family live on the Arizona side) ever since I was born, probably—or before. Sometimes we would run back to Arizona for a quick three-day weekend, where we would miss school, for a ceremony, or to help with the livestock and harvest. I watched my parents balance this life as well, where they had jobs in Lawrence, and saved up their vacation time and paid time-off to do our annual visit to the reservation.
My parents made sure I had a foundational cultural knowledge where I say my clans in Navajo, participate in ceremonies, and learn our cultural crafts such as weaving. I am very lucky to have a family that prioritized that for me and raised me in an environment where I never forget where I originally came from. That I never forget our traditional ways and our homelands.
Growing up, this became harder, as I was embarrassed to be Native. In my teen years, I just wanted to fit in, and quickly made sure I was not wearing any Navajo jewelry or attire. Most of my schools in Lawrence had a handful of Natives in the entire school, but oftentimes I would be the only one in my classrooms. I finally started to come out of this phase when I was a senior in high school and ran for the “Miss Indian Youth of Lawrence” pageant. Like most Native American pageants, it is not about looks, it’s about your cultural knowledge. Winning that pageant grew my confidence that being a proud Navajo young woman was cool, it was beauty. When I went to college, I promised myself that I would not be that shy and hesitant girl who just wanted to fit in. I wanted to be outspoken and be the change I wanted to see in my community.
To the second question: that is a very interesting one! I feel like if my parents did not leave the reservation, my entire life would have been different, and I do not know if I would have been this politically active. I would like to think I still would be, because I come from a family full of strong, vocal women. Though what really turned my passion into anger, sometimes, when talking about my people and the mistrust with the government, is comparing my life in Kansas to the reservation. There were so many opportunities I took here in Lawrence, such as playing the violin, going to a Women’s Engineering camp at KU in high school, and playing AAU basketball: all of those would not be possible if my parents did not have the jobs they do now, mainly my mother. I think I would have still gone away to another state for college and maybe found my voice and passion/anger there, when I would have seen how other urban kids grew up. Yeah, I am sure I would have probably ended up in a similar career choice.
Your grandparents stayed on the reservation, and you have visited them regularly since childhood. You said that life changes dramatically outside the reservation, and opportunities and services for Natives are very limited. How have you experienced and interpreted life on the reservation—and the concept of the reservation itself—over the years?
Growing up and making these visits to the reservation, I never viewed the reservation as “poor” or in terms of “poverty.” It was always home to me. I was always excited to see my grandparents, even though my maternal parents do not speak fluent English. My paternal family was always something to look forward to, as my great-grandparents had nine daughters, which technically equals to me having nine grandmothers, which means a lot of cousins! Being with family, the land, my culture, and the food, always made me feel complete. I think a lot of us feel this connection we have with our land and culture, and when we are away, it feels like we are not fully balanced.
The negative concept of a reservation did not occur to me until around college where I learned about health statistics and saw “American Indians/Alaskan Natives” always last or categorized as “other.” When I was taught how to read data, charts, tables, and graphics, it was a shock to see how my people seem to always have the highest morbidity and mortality rates in comparison to other races. When we learned about social economics and disparities, this is what angered me and sparked my passion.
Now, as I am a bit older and have learned about the political history with Natives and the Government (because they never teach you this in school), this infuriated me. Public health opened my eyes to how great a life I had as an urban Native, and realizing why my maternal grandparents still, to this day, do not have electricity or hot water. I felt my life experiences and my academic knowledge were unique and that I needed to advocate for all Natives who live on or off a reservation.
You frequently mention the persistent invisibility of Native Americans both in official data and in high-level positions. You have spoken about the controversial “blood quantum” criterion (measuring a person’s percentage of “Indian blood” as a tribal identity marker) and noted how problematic and deleterious this can be. So what do you think are the best strategies to effectively manage the issue of representation, and to make Native Americans more visible and socially involved?
I have a few ideas; one is to build or fund more higher education and technical schools on reservations. Too often, Natives are having to make this decision to stay on the reservation with family and culture, or to leave and risk losing culture but gain the possibility of economic opportunity and a future for their kids. We also see this in non-Native communities, where to build a community’s economy, you invest in their higher education programs.
Another idea is to create space and a seat in industries. One of the best ways to update our culture, to get people aware of leaving a seat open for Natives at the table, is through the entertainment industry. I think adding more Indigenous peoples on film and screen will bring that representation. Many people still think Native Americans do not exist, so that would be a great start. I think fashion is making great strides as we see celebrities will wear garments made by Indigenous folks. Another person I am thinking about is Aaron Yazzie, who is a NASA mechanical engineer and has designed rovers that go to Mars. If we highlight Native folks like Aaron, I think that representation will encourage many youths to go into these fields that are not as familiar for us to go into.
Lastly, empowering Natives by giving them the tools to succeed. This can be difficult due to historical trauma and the negative effects and policy that still target Native peoples. Such as: in some states, they do not allow your voting address to be from a P.O. Box, or to only have one person registered under the P.O. Box; well, there’s no street signs and house numbers on the reservation. I am hoping to be a part of this solution and the others I have mentioned.
In December 2020 the CDC published a report showing that an American Native person was nearly twice as likely to die from COVID-19 (compared to a non-Hispanic white person). You are a public health professional, and you work with the National Council of Urban Indian Health, and the Center for American Indian Community Health, focusing on the consequences of COVID-19 on Native communities. You also expressed your frustration with the limited data we have for the Native American population. How has COVID affected your community? How heavy is the weight of historical disparities and inequalities at such a critical time as this?
At the beginning of the pandemic, Kansas made the right decision to shut down schools and go on lockdown, until we had a plan together. My community here in District 10, and the Douglas County – Lawrence area, does a pretty good job at following public health guidelines. It was great to see my community come together, such as making free masks, providing free lunch to K–12 students, and local restaurants donating meals to the free lunch program and the homeless.
On the Navajo Reservation, it was a different story. It was scary to see the case rates rise to an uncontrollable level. The Navajo Nation President even put a gathering limit-restriction on ceremonies. They quickly escalated to a lockdown and curfew. We had many worries, as my maternal grandparents live an hour away from the nearest grocery store, so making trips into town for necessities was unavoidable. Even the basic recommendations for hand washing were useless, as many Navajos on the reservation do not have running water. The pandemic emphasized the disparity of these basic necessities. Due to the Tribal Government having Tribal Sovereignty with the U.S. Government, fixing issues such as providing water to all Navajo residents is a lot more complicated than adding onto the current water systems.
For the longest time, the national media were not covering the Navajo Nation, but we all could see it escalated from social media. I felt hopeless to help my family back home, because the best thing to do was to not go on the reservation, and I was running a campaign. Though I am glad to hear we are doing great at vaccine distribution.
Among the bills that you are sponsoring now is HB 2008, which provides for the Attorney General to coordinate training for law enforcement agencies on missing and murdered Indigenous people. The bill recently passed with a unanimous vote. You and your colleagues wore red to honor Indigenous people who were murdered and missing. Can you explain the background of that bill and how you anticipate that it will be implemented?
The bill, HB 2008, is Representative Dr. Ponka-We Victors’ bill, which she first introduced in 2020. I would also refer any questions you have about the creation of the bill to her. Though I will speak on my involvement as a co-sponsor. I first saw this bill being introduced at a press release last year—I am sure I skipped my morning class in grad school to attend. Rep. Dr. Victors asked for Indigenous peoples to come and stand beside her for this important legislation. I wore a Navajo red floral skirt and my moccasins with dentalium shell red earrings to help amplify the awareness. This was a powerful moment to be a part of, and the first time I got to meet Rep. Dr. Victors. It was truly the first time I saw someone who looked like me in a state legislature position, and got me thinking about how I want to do work in this field.
I would also refer the exact vision of implementation of HB 2008 to Rep. Dr. Victors, but I can give my interpretation. This bill would be Kansas’ first step in addressing MMIP (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons) and would be a solution to one of many issues: education. This bill would provide the option for education to our state law enforcement who have a higher chance of seeing human trafficking or homicide, or handling missing-persons cases. It had the support of the Attorney General, so I have hope of its implementation once it gets passed.
What does it mean to be a Diné woman today, and what characteristics of this cultural “belonging” do you want to emphasize in your political and cultural actions? Do you have a particular message for young Americans?
Being a Diné woman today means you identify as female and embrace the strength of our ancestors. To me, being a Diné woman is carrying yourself with the guidance of our ancestors, the strength of our culture, and doing so through walking in beauty. This cultural belongingness was a journey for me and can be similar to those who grew up “off the reservation.” I believe it’s who I am and has prepared me for a job like this, being a politician. I was raised with my cultural values but also to succeed in this Western, European world. Doing of all this while not forgetting the sacrifices that were made for me to be in this position today from my ancestors and my parents.
To all the young Americans: you belong here and have purpose in this world. You might not know it today, or you might find yourself with multiple purposes in your lifetime. Find peace and balance in your culture and identity, but also be gentle on yourself. You cannot take care of others unless you take care of yourself.
Photos: Courtesy Christina Haswood