Published January 28th, 2021 at 6:00 AM
Christina Haswood says she never imagined she’d be a Kansas state representative.
At 26, she is among the youngest representatives in the state where she represents District 10, which comprises Douglas County. She also is one of two Native American members. In early January, she got national media attention for a viral TikTok video she shared of her wearing traditional Indigenous clothing during her swearing-in ceremony.
Haswood was born in Lawrence, Kansas, which is in the district she now represents. She said Haskell Indian Nations University, where she and 10 of her relatives have attended or are currently enrolled, stoked the flame to make a difference for her community.
“You know that the university has a special place in my heart,” she said, adding that Haskell gave her parents a better opportunity. “That’s what pretty much brought (my parents) off the reservation and chose to stay in Lawrence to raise their family.”
Her foray into the public health field began in high school, grew at Haskell and was cemented at Arizona State University, where she also saw people like herself doing the work that’s most needed in her community.
Flatland caught up with the newly elected member of the legislature to get to know her journey from a public health professional to a politician.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Christina Haswood: I kind of got thrown into the political world. I like to say that I’m a newbie … because I started really just diving into things in November 2019.
It started off with getting people registered to vote after one of my classes in Kansas City. The ideal goal was to figure out how to bridge public health and policy. I’m also Indigenous. I am from Diné. Ever since high school, I really saw the need for people like me to go into this field, into this medical field and provide research.
I’ve been trained on research, mixed-method approaches, and providing data because when you search anything with Native American/American Indian, you get less than a hundred results most of the time. So that’s the path I was heading up, but I was just frustrated with the process a bit. We do this academic work, but we never really see it take off into the community and we never really follow up with it. And I liked that personal interaction. You know, when we look at data, it’s just people and their numbers.
I really want to meet these people and, you know, shake their hands and hear their stories. When you see data, when you see a chart, it doesn’t mean that’s the full story. Oftentimes when you talk to the person, it makes a lot more sense why that chart looks like this or why this statistic looks like this.
CH: Back in March when everyone wasn’t too sure what this COVID SARS-CoV-2 was, I was like, ‘Thank goodness our reservations are fairly rural and remote.’ Um, little did I know that they would be one of the most highly impacted, especially my reservation, the Navajo Nation. Seeing the rates of morbidity and mortality rise was really disheartening. And it was also scary because there (weren’t) a lot of resources to implement.
I look at my family and they like to go to the nearest border town or like to go to the casino. And it’s because they’re stuck on the reservation. There’s really no running water or electricity in some areas. Even like the nearest grocery store is an hour away. So it’s really hard (to) tell them to stay still.
It just really broke my heart to see how the rates just continue to rise. And it was uncontrolled. Even with my family, we lost a couple of family members to COVID. So that’s what really made it personal.
It was also frustrating to watch the governor try to implement these public health-conscious measures that we, you know, we love to see, but met with backlash and it’s really hard to change that narrative that this isn’t political.
This is about compassion and protecting the neighbor. Even the simple due diligence of wearing a mask has been politicized. Yes, it is your own bodily autonomy, but you know what? When you visit your grandparents, you could be carrying it. So I just continue having those conversations on a daily basis.
CH: My part in this is to definitely normalize like mask-wearing and up-to-date on information. I feel like the general public feels – during this unprecedented time – that the science always changes.
Science is always never fact. We’re always looking for the improvement of a formula. So (I’m) trying to always have people understand, like, yes, the data is going to change. If you were to get this virus, we are taking all (precautionary) measures. We don’t want to risk anything. And this is what we know from previous research and from data.
I (was) on a panel for vaccine-hesitant people. This really resonates with me as a person of color, as an Indigenous woman, because when we look at the history of vaccinations and research, it’s not good for us.
I want to help communities understand that this is scary. Of course, you have a choice to take the vaccine or not take the vaccine, but if you are not, then there are precautionary measures (to take). If you are, then here is (information) if you get an allergic reaction, these are the side effects of it. We’re always here to help you.
The biggest issue is we need more vaccines and we need the workforce and manpower to implement these vaccines.
And I’m always open to more suggestions on what I can do to help give people the information that they need. I hear from people (who say), ‘If I get a vaccine it’s not for me, it’s so I can be with my children. I can be with my immunocompromised partner.’ So I think that framework is really great. And that’s how I think of it too. When I go back and see my family that live in town, they’re essential workers who’ve been furloughed throughout the summer, that’s something I don’t want to jeopardize.
CH: I’m what you call an urban Native American, which means I didn’t grow up on the reservation. Statistically, 70% of us don’t even live on the reservations.
I saw a gap (in services) when the Navajo nation would do housing assistance. It was only for those who live on the reservation. Even with the scholarship program, they required you to live on the reservation, even though you’re an enrolled member. Oftentimes a young family, like my parents, started their family unexpectedly with me, very young. They utilize a lot of social service programs, such as affordable housing and reduced lunch.
With that (upbringing), my story has become a little bit more relatable.
I feel like it’s a story that hasn’t really been shared because we’re not really represented in the textbooks and our curriculum. So it was really surprising when I got to high school and took American Indian study classes. Taking those classes at 18 years old really makes you angry, realizing what happened in history with your ancestors and the Indigenous peoples and what the United States government (did).
We’re still invisible, even in the data and in these high-level positions. Like when I’m in Congress, or even in state agencies, federal agencies, our voice (isn’t) present and I see this in other communities too. Once I realized that in college, this is kind of where I go, ‘OK, let me start showing up.’
Growing up being Native, I wasn’t really comfortable. Like I wouldn’t wear all my jewelry because I wanted to fit in. Later we see what that is – European beauty standards that were really pushed on us back in the 2000s and ‘90s. I really struggled with this in middle school.
Both my parents were raised on the reservation. English is their second language. Navajo is her first language. So they raised me out here in Lawrence with the cultural values and I would always get embarrassed. My mom would make fry bread in our apartment complex and it would just smell like oil and deep-fried bread in the whole apartment complex.
CH: A lot of us that come from these backgrounds don’t really share it because we’re like, ‘Oh, that was dumb. Why were we so ashamed?’ Now we’re all in higher academia filing for Native American scholarships and like taking them in Native American classes. I feel like my openness has helped other people cope and heal within their own selves and forgive themselves for that phase of life.
Also, there are conversations that don’t happen. I can only speak to my culture where we have the blood quantum and which is similar to, you know, dogs and cats with their breeds. Do you want a (purebred) or you want a mut? And this was a system that the United States government created and it was created, you know, for genocidal purposes.
So the history has shown that when they created the blood quantum, it was so they could thin out our blood. Eventually, we won’t make the blood quantum to our tribes, which is another interesting conversation because we think tribes have the sovereignty to expand that fraction.
Of course, it all comes to money. I intend to have a family and kids in the future, maybe not right now. You know, this blood quantum just popped into my head too. And my partner is not Navajo. So my blood quantum would decrease. In Navajo Nation, (there’s) a one-fourth minimum. My future kids would make the one fourth, but if their future reproductive partner was not Navajo or another tribe, they would not be enrolled in the Navajo Nation.
It’s not normally talked about in the classrooms and I feel like the emphasis of change isn’t being brought to the forefront. I imagine there’ll be many other scenarios like this that will come up with the younger generation. The younger generation, Gen Z, they’re amazing. I think they advocate for themselves very well and raise their voices. So I’m excited to always bring them a seat at the table.
CH: Before the national media, there (were) two realizations. That I’m a Kansas state representative. When I got called by my committee chair and Health and Human Services Rep. Allan Hazlett, and I was like, ‘Oh, crap, that’s me.’
Another was when I was swearing-in. I just wanted to chest bump somebody. Like, let’s do some good for Kansas. I’m ready to get to work. Those are the two moments where I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is happening.’
I was looking around in the (Capitol) building, taking it all in. And the thought occurred to me. How many times, in this room of the house of the chamber, are there discussions that try to take and dehumanize Indigenous peoples and Native Americans?
I was like: ‘Man, whatever they tried to do in this room, it didn’t work. It failed. I’m here.’ You know, (Kansas) Rep. Punka We-Victors has been here for 10 years. Then I come along and represent. Stephanie Byer’s the champion of LGBTQ plus issues. We are here. Whatever they tried to do did not work at all.
CH: I wanted to have documentation of this moment because there’s never going to be a time again that I’m going to have my first swear-in in the Kansas legislature. It was such a surreal feeling. And I wanted other young people of color to see themselves in this position.
I try to be as vulnerable as possible on my social media just to show the realness of it and like how I was just, you know, just a normal grad student about a year ago. And I decided to get involved in my community. I started volunteering. I started to show up. I was just trying to figure out how it could represent, you know, the voices who can’t make it at these meetings. And somehow it got me here.
When I was younger, I didn’t think being a politician was even a career choice for me. I didn’t see anybody up there that looked like me. The thought of being a politician changed from a dream to being a reality when I saw Congresswoman Sharice Davids and Congresswoman Deb Holland. I always thought if I were to go into politics, I’d have to go to tribal politics, which would not be good because I’m not fluent in my language and they just don’t, you don’t get that far if you’re not fluent.
I didn’t think Kansas was really accepting of us, but when I saw (them) I was very hopeful.
CH: We need you out here. Change isn’t always being the politician. Change comes from many aspects and avenues of what you’re passionate about. So I like to say change can even come from fashion. Advocating and being an activist in that field creates a lot of impact. You can also create change in being an engineer or a doctor because those are, you know, fields that maybe Indigenous peoples aren’t highly represented. There’s so much work that needs to be done.
But also don’t forget where you come from.
Just sit there and be in the environment because showing up and just, you know, especially being a person of color. I was just showing up and like soaking it all in. And then the question I would always ask is: ‘What about us, the Native American population? What are you doing for us?’ Nine out of 10 times, they would say, I don’t know.