Christina Haswood is a member of the Navajo tribe, an AIS scholarship alumni, a public health specialist with an M.S. from the University of Kansas, and at the age of 26 she is running uncontested to represent the Kansas 10th district. Ms. Haswood is soon to be the youngest current member of the Kansas state legislature. We’re so proud of her accomplishments and the way she is utilizing her education to give back to her community. We spoke to Christina about what it was like growing up as an urban Native, her education, and what inspired her to run for the Kansas Legislature. To support students like Ms. Haswood who aspire to careers in public service, please consider donating today.
What was it like growing up away from the Navajo Nation? I’d imagine it presented some unique challenges.
“A lot of us urban Natives kind of have this identity issue where we don’t look like the standard of beauty in Western society. And being a young female makes it especially hard. I didn’t like the color of my skin and how long my hair is. And I was embarrassed of my culture to the point where I wouldn’t even want to wear turquoise. But that was mostly in the beginning of my childhood.”
Were there some cultural differences that stood out to you?
“Kids here would sometimes say things like, ‘Oh, my grandma made me cookies. I’m going to go to her house after school.’ And I’d be thinking, ‘My grandmother never made me cookies! She just tells me to go make bread and do the dishes.’ Like, that’s nice for them, but I have to go butcher a sheep.”
What helped you come to appreciate and be proud of your culture?
“My parents are both Navajo and English is their second language. They made it crucially important that my younger brother and I learn our Navajo culture and ways. We would go to the reservation at least once a year to stay with my grandparents for about a week or sometimes a whole month, and I got to see and experience the reservation way of life. If we went in the fall, I would help plant corn. And sometimes we would even run back for a three day weekend to help harvest the crops. It would be an entire family effort to help with the livestock and cattle. Our culture is just so rich in history and this special way of life. Growing up now and looking back, I think I found my footing in being a Navajo woman.”
Something that I’ve heard repeatedly from our students is that even though their families are considered low income, they didn’t feel that burden growing up. It sounds like you felt the same.
“My parents did all the social service programs like WIC, tribal clothing, and we would be on section eight housing assistance. And I never, even in Lawrence, felt like I was poor. My parents just did the best they could, and our culture creates this sense of loving and care in the home that makes up for a lot. On my maternal side my grandparents don’t have electricity and they just got plumbing less than 10 years ago. So when we visited we always prepared our mindset to not shower every day. Because the only way to shower is to go to the chapter house. And I wasn’t embarrassed of it at all because I just knew that’s how the way of life was. And my grandparents seemed happy. They never complained.”
What made you want to pursue an education in public health?
“I did an internship on the Navajo nation, the summer research enhancement program. And I had my externship site at the epidemiology center. I woke up every day completely energized and felt like the work that I was putting in worked for a bigger purpose. Luckily, they didn’t ask for my GPA because I was at my lowest point in my academic career. Because doing that internship for my tribe really lit a fire underneath me. I was like, “Oh, so this is what a passion feels like. Even if I get paid minimum wage, this is what I want to do.’ I’ve done a lot of things in public health from teaching adults how to properly cut vegetables, all the way to giving presentations and speaking at conferences to other academic professionals, and I’ve loved it all.”
What inspired you to transition from public health to being a politician?
“I did an internship in DC last summer with the native American political leadership program. I‘ve done like 10 internships to make up for my GPA. It really opened my eyes to the gap between national public policy and tribal sovereignty. Once we leave reservation borders, there are so few services for Native Americans. You know, everyone talks about how we need to be at the table. And I was finally at the table a couple of times, meeting with congressmen and women. It’s quite intimidating and uncomfortable for a lot of people to do this interactive advocacy. I know a lot of Natives that go to D.C. and say, this is not for me. I completely understand because it’s kind of a toxic environment. But I was fairly comfortable, I think because I grew up in a Caucasian town.
I heard a quote once saying, if you want to create change, the federal level isn’t always the way to go. Your local level politics make the decisions of your everyday life. So I started to attend the forums of the county commission for the city of Lawrence. They did a coffee talk on Saturdays that I would attend, and I would be the only person of color, and most of the time the youngest person in the room. So I would ask, ‘What about us? What are you doing for the Native Indigenous communities?’ Because we have tribal sovereignty and treaty rights that need to be upheld. And they wouldn’t have an answer. So I got involved and started volunteering to help get people to vote. Finally the thought occurred to me, maybe I could do this one day.
I didn’t think it would be this early. I thought, maybe when I’m 30 or 40. But there was an open seat and I asked my community leaders in the district what they thought about me being the representative. And they thought I’d be great because I was born and raised here. A lot of people saw me grow up here, and I was a big basketball and volleyball girl, playing varsity sports and all that. So I was the third candidate to file for election, and I won the primary.”
How do you think your background in public health, and what we’re seeing in Native communities as COVID hits them so hard, will affect your policy making?
“I’ve been trained to look at evidence based practices and to look upstream for problem solving. I think that will come in handy in the state legislature here in Kansas. This is one of the hot spots still for COVID-19 and my family has been personally impacted. We’ve lost a couple of loved ones to the virus. Some of my family still has anxiety going out in public, but they’re handling it okay. Just going day by day. And there are nonprofits that are helping. My grandparents received food from one, and they helped pay for a hotel stay when we had to go down for a funeral. The Navajo people are incredibly resilient.”
Do you have any words of wisdom for young people like you who are trying to create change and do good in the world, to help them be brave and push past the difficulties?
“What I did was find a social media group that have the same ideologies as me, and kind of built that safe sense of community where you can truly be who you are.
“When I was running on my campaign things would sometimes be rocky. But my mom always told me to pray. So a lot of times in my primary we would get up before the sun, and then we would take our tádídíín and pray to the rising sun. And then I started getting back into running, just getting back to the basics of our cultural teachings really helped me with the discomfort I felt as a result of the culture of politics. And all my mentors would tell me to always take care of yourself. You can’t take care of others until you take care of yourself.
Being that voice of change in a room, sometimes I still get uncomfortable. Oh my heart will race. I remember last summer I had a question for Congressman Tom Cole and I was so nervous to ask him this question that my Apple watch told me that my heart rate was too high. It was like, you need to take a breath girl. So even if your voice is shaky, as long as you get that out, it gets more comfortable along the way.
It’s hard, but remember you’re an indigenous person. Our ancestors survived genocide for us to be here today, and we all have a purpose here on mother earth. You have your rightful path and purpose. It might not look like mine. It might not look like the textbook definition, but you do have a purpose in this world to create positive change in your own way. And I encourage everyone to vote and get involved with your local issues. For a lot of us, we’re kind of dual citizens of the United States and our tribal nations. Try to keep up with as much of that as possible because your voice matters. A lot of people will try to suppress your voice and suppress your vote. And that just shows how important your voice is."