By: Taylor Notah & Nicholet Deschine Parkhurst
Tribal affiliation: Diné / Húŋkpapȟa & Diné
’18 BA Journalism / Study: PhD in Justice Studies
Two Native Sun Devil alumnae are making herstory as they are changing what leadership looks like in our governments and communities. Reps. Christina Haswood, D-Lawrence, and Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren, D-Red Mesa, made national waves when they became the youngest sitting legislators in Kansas and Arizona respectively. In an April 2, 2021, interview with Turning Points Magazine, they shared insight about their unique pathways at ASU, navigating Zoom university, Indigenizing spaces, and the power of the Native vote.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to this full discussion in the four-part episode series on the Turning Points Magazine Podcast!
Rep. Christina Haswood (Diné) is a public health professional and represents District 10 in the Kansas House of Representatives. At the age of 26, she became one of the youngest members of the Kansas Legislature and is only the third Native American in her state’s history to join the House. Haswood graduated from ASU in 2018 with a BS in public health.
Rep. Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren (Diné) represents District 7 in the Arizona House of Representatives. As the youngest member of the House at the age of 25, she was appointed by the Apache County Board of Supervisors to fill a vacancy left by District 7 Rep. Arlando Teller in February of 2021. Blackwater-Nygren graduated in 2020 from ASU’s Sandra Day O’Conner College of Law with a JD and Indian Law Certificate.
How did ASU pop up on your radar? What were your experiences like?
Christina Haswood: I always made it a goal to go to ASU after high school, but I financially couldn’t afford it. I told my counselor, ‘I want to go to Arizona State.’ We looked at the ASU nursing track… then found the community health area to be it. After I graduated with my associate in science, I made that transition to ASU.
It wasn’t the prettiest transition. All my community and tribal college people out there can relate that the pace of it is so different. I fell flat on my face when I went to ASU. I came out of Haskell with a 3.8 GPA, cum laude. Then my first semester at ASU, I was on academic probation (with) a 1.2 GPA. I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ I was the first in my family to go to a big state university. We did everything wrong– we took out the max amount of federal loans, paid for textbooks full price, we didn’t know what we were doing. Luckily, I had the parental support to do what I wanted to do.
This was my first time away from home and getting homesick, trying to figure out this big university system. I’m so glad for the Native American Student Success Centers. They were the ones who definitely helped keep me on track.
Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren: When I was a young kid, I would look through the Navajo Times and I would go all the way back to the classifieds and say, ‘What are the needs of the Navajo Nation?’ All these attorney positions (would) always open. In high school, I knew that I wanted to be an attorney. I knew by the time I was a senior in college, I wanted to go to ASU because it is close to home and ASU Law has one of the best Indian Legal Programs in the country, period… Throughout law school, I set myself up to come home. I passed the bar last October and I was getting ready to take the Navajo bar… (then) I was appointed.
You both completed chapters of your higher education pathways amid the pandemic. What were your personal experiences with Zoom university?
C.H.: One of the obstacles was getting a desk and a proper office chair and I was like, ‘I can wait it out. We’ll be back in school.” This was at a time we didn’t know how harmful the pandemic was going to hit us and on our homelands, in our communities. So school was pretty much closed and I just had like a really flimsy office chair that I used to do my makeup… but that really wasn’t doing it, my back started to hurt. I was lucky enough to have my younger brother who bought me a new laptop that really helped as well. I was so glad to have that type of support and to finish my master’s in public health and defend my thesis. Running for office blended in, too, because I got asked to run in April or May (of 2020) and then I ended up filing in May. It was crazy to run a campaign.
J.B.N.: It was my last semester of law school when the pandemic hit. Definitely the biggest challenge was doing the Indian Legal Clinic on Zoom. We went home for spring break and then we weren’t allowed back on campus. I ended up going back home. It was a real struggle to do Zoom university up on the rez. We don’t have reliable electricity so we can’t have my laptop, the coffee maker and air conditioner on, so you had to choose– what do you want? It was hard, I couldn’t make coffee and do easy things– I had to make it on the stovetop or I couldn’t have my air conditioner on if I was going to be in class because it’s just not strong enough to do that. Just the simplest things (like) securing Wi-Fi was such a headache. For a long time I was just using the hotspot off my phone and then I realized that wasn’t going to be enough. Zoom university is hard, especially living on the rez and trying to deal with these infrastructure problems that we’re all well aware of as Native people.
The 2020 election showed that the power of the Native vote can truly change the game in politics. Native American voters turned up at the polls and turned Arizona blue. What are your thoughts on the impact that Native Americans have during election season?
C.H.: I think it’s an exciting conversation. What happened in Arizona was really exciting and that energy definitely came here to Kansas. One of the things about being one of the few Natives in office here, I got asked a lot, ‘How do we turn out the vote? How do we create policy, get the conversation going that there’s Native voter suppression happening in the state of Kansas. One of the biggest things here in Kansas we’re fighting is getting advance ballots, mail-in ballots a thing. It was granted because of the pandemic, but here in the Statehouse we’re really trying to fight for this to be a permanent way to cast your ballot. There’s some harmful voter suppression legislation happening here in the Statehouse where it would be a crime to turn in someone else’s ballot. They don’t think about how someone is elderly or disabled, don’t even have a car– you can’t physically take in their ballots to the ballot box. We also have issues with people that mail in their ballot with a postage system. In the pandemic around Christmas time, in the general election a lot of our UPS systems were slowed down. People felt like they couldn’t really trust that system, so we really tried to spread the message here about using ballot boxes. My district didn’t even have a ballot box for the primary election, so it’s really interesting to see how voter suppression happens.
J.B.N.: You can’t deny the political power of Natives in Arizona. We look at the districts that turned blue, that are blue and they’re all correlated with tribal nations… It’s always interesting to me when I see that partisanship of the Native vote, especially in a state like Arizona where we’re always almost in the minority, but now we’re seeing that change and it’s because of Native vote. I’m so incredibly hopeful for the future of Arizona. I think every election we turn more and more purple, maybe we’ll turn more blue. Obviously our state went blue for the presidential election, but we still have the Republican governor, a Republican-controlled Senate, Republican-controlled House and unfortunately that does mean a lot of voter suppression bills do get passed in the House and Senate. But what can we do right? It’s hard. The best that we can do is organize, get the Native vote out there, and continue to advocate for better voter protection bills.
What is it like for you both when you’re in the Capitol building, you’re in those spaces where historically speaking, Native Americans rarely had a seat at the table?
C.H.: When I first got sworn in, I wore our traditional outfits– velveteen skirts, jewelry, my tsiyeeł, moccasins and everything. I got into the House chamber… looked around and thought, ‘Oh man, what kind of policies, conversations or intentions were made in this room to suppress, dehumanize Native peoples, people of color?’ We look at Brown v. Board of Education that happened here in Topeka. When you come into the Kansas Statehouse, you come in from the basement of the Visitor’s Center and the first thing you see (is a picture that) says ‘First Peoples’ showing the Indigenous peoples of Kansas. Seeing that everyday walking into this building really puts into perspective how we weren’t supposed to be here.
The government at all levels tried to suppress us. Surviving genocide, ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’ How is that interpreted here in the state of Kansas? That always runs through my mind when I see pictures of old Supreme Court Justices. I look at the paintings and there’s no people of color, there’s no Indigenous representation.
Rep. Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham Nation) is the first female Native American state legislator. I believe there hasn’t been a Native American state senator in the state of Kansas to my knowledge. I came in with Rep. Stephanie Byers (Chickasaw Nation) so we’re third and fourth… I’m so glad to have mentorship from Victors. I (also) have my auntie’s on the congressional level, Congresswoman Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation), Madam Secretary Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna). They all led me to be here today. They broke and shattered glass ceilings, had their hands down and pulled me up, and left the ladder down.
J.B.N.: LD7 has always historically been represented by a Navajo person and this goes way back to when the district lines were drawn. Navajos have always had a say in who their state representatives are and it’s always been a Navajo person, even though there’s eight different tribes in the district. Navajo has such a huge population, and they come out and vote. Even when not a lot of them come out and vote, it’s enough to get a state representative elected most times. I’ve come into this long history and legacy of other Navajo serving in this position. When I walk into the House onto the floor, it’s not new for them to see a Navajo in this position or (to) see a woman of color. What is different is my youthfulness. Being 25, I might be the youngest LD7 representative there has ever been.
What’s also different is that Arizona has this long history of recognizing its tribes, even though it doesn’t feel that way. Having such a big part of Arizona being tribal lands and then you add on to that Navajo being such a big voice when it comes to state politics, having that voting base gives you a voice…The tribal voice matters and always has mattered in state politics, especially when you consider the history of Indian gaming in Arizona. People in the House care what Natives think and they care what positions we take. Whether or not they vote that way is a different story, but they’re aware that we’re there… People have this deep sense of pride when it comes to having Natives in the state of Arizona, which is not the experience of Rep. Haswood where Natives have maybe been overlooked in the state legislature, whereas in Arizona we’ve always been very prominent and always been a voice.
It’s a big weight, and everyday I’m very honored to be in those spaces.