Native Americans in Kansas have a bright future

Rep. Christina Haswood, Democrat from Lawrence, is sworn in at the Kansas Capitol on Jan. 11. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Rep. Christina Haswood (D-Lawrence) represents District 10 in the Kansas House.

Kansas is home to Indigenous peoples of the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, Jiwere, Kaw/Kansa, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Ochethi Sakowin, Ogaxpa, Osage, Pawnee, Peoria, Sauk and Meskwwaki, and Wichita tribes, which once occupied the lands of Kansas prior to colonization.

Today, Kansas has four federally recognized tribes: the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska (White Cloud), the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas (Horton), the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation (Mayetta), and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska (Reserve).

On November 24, 2020, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly Proclaimed November as National American Indian Heritage Month. This type of recognition from our leaders makes us feel seen and accepted but shows a lot more work needs to be done.

First, it’s important to know the past and honor the sacrifices that were made for us Native peoples to be here today.

Know Your History 

Each 574 Federally Recognized Tribes has its own history and journey to tribal sovereignty. Here are two points in history that I would like to highlight: the Boarding School Era (1800-1930), and the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

The Boarding School Era was a time when the United States government would go onto tribal lands to forcibly take the children to an off-reservation boarding school. Here in Kansas House District 10, we have one of the earliest boarding schools in the country: Haskell Indian Nations University, which opened its doors in 1884. In “Indian” boarding schools across the U.S., Native children would have their hair cut and be forbidden to speak their Indigenous language — if they were caught doing so, they could be punished violently.

The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 was passed by Congress but left up to the states for enforcement until 1957. Many states prevented Natives from voting by using literacy tests and ID laws and simply not letting them vote. It has been fewer than 100 years since Natives were granted citizenship and became able to exercise their voting rights. Yet, like many other marginalized groups, in 2020 we are still fighting voter suppression across the U.S.

The future of Native Americans in Kansas 

Native peoples have fought for many generations to have a seat at the table. Reflecting back on the history ignites a fire inside of me with anger and passion for representation and change. The Native vote is powerful but how do we convince Natives to trust our system of democracy when this system called us “Merciless Indian Savages” in the Declaration of Independence in 1776? We must start somewhere and never give up — resiliency.

I see progress and evidence that more Native peoples in Kansas are getting politically involved and creating space for Native voices. In November, I was elected to the Kansas House from District 10 along with Stephanie Byers of Wichita’s House District 86. We joined Dr. Ponka-We Victors, also of Wichita, who was re-elected from House District 103 and U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids from Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District.

In my district, Native community leaders created the Facebook page Native Vote-Lawrence+DGCO Kansas. They shared voter registration information and voting deadlines and held forums for the Douglas County Sheriff’s and Kansas Congressional District 2 races. Questions in the forum were all about Urban Native-specific issues such as food insecurity, police brutality, human trafficking, missing and murdered Indigenous peoples and the disproportionate incarceration rates for Native folks in Douglas County.

Our public schools lack well-rounded Native American curricula and representation, though some schools in my district are taking steps to change that. The school formerly known as South Jr. High School has been renamed Billy Mills Middle School to honor its history with Indigenous peoples. The Inter-Tribal Club at Lawrence High School has been vocal on issues such as the removal of Native American mascots. There are also two elected school board members of USD 497: Carole Cadue-Blackwood and Paula Smith. The efforts of Native American representation and inclusion have improved since I was in the K-12 public school system eight years ago. I anticipate progress will continue to grow.

The future holds more work but it is bright for Native folks. We are too often forgotten in the data and curricula and at the tables of decision making. A wave of momentum is changing that as more Natives file for office, the youth mobilize their voices for change, and communities celebrate their diversity. Native Americans in Kansas will continue to be resilient and honor the sacrifices of our ancestors.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.