Hazel Stabler stands in a doorway of her midtown Wichita home, surrounded by garments she designed and fabricated.
Hazel Stabler stands in a doorway of her midtown Wichita home, surrounded by garments she designed and fabricated. The fashion designer and Wichita school board member wears a red deerskin skirt that was part of the fall 2019 collection she showed at New York Fashion Week. The skirt is embellished with elk teeth, and the handprint motif refers to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a cause close to Stabler’s heart. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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Much as Wichita sits at the confluence of two rivers, Hazel Stabler lives at the confluence of two identities – fashion designer and school board member.

Hazel and her husband, Hollis, retired to Wichita about 10 years ago. Originally from Emporia, Hazel is of Yaqui and Ojibwe heritage; her husband is Omaha.

Hazel has a deep affection for the traditional Native American regalia she has worn on special occasions since she was a child. Her father worked for the Santa Fe Railroad, and she says they used to take the train to Wichita to attend powwows, where members of different tribes meet to socialize, sing, dance and honor their cultures.

When she had children, Stabler taught herself how to make the clothes they wore to dances, then she learned how to make all kinds of clothes. In the 1980s, she was asked to participate in a fashion show during a lady chieftains conference at Harvard University. The organizers of that Boston conference suggested she show outfits she made for herself and her family. Instead, Stabler used the next three months to design and fabricate a collection.

That led to other opportunities to show her work at conferences and powwows all over the country, and eventually to New York, where Stabler presented her Fashion Week collection in 2019 at the hiTechModa show. Her fall 2019 Buffalo Hunt Camp collection includes 20 looks inspired by traditional Native American materials and designs, such as beads, feathers and ribbonwork. Now, she’s choosing fabrics for the collection she will show next fall during fashion weeks in Paris and Milan.

Her Native-inspired designs “create a lot of interest and people ask a lot of questions about where they  came from,” Stabler said. “It just brings awareness to my culture.”

For one look in the 2019 collection, Stabler chose distinctive makeup: a red handprint covering a model’s mouth, which echoed the skirt’s design motif.

Native American activists have used similar face paint to bring awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement. Stabler dedicated her show to the movement, which she said has touched her family.

“The issue has been in existence in our whole history, with women being stolen, murdered, enslaved,” she said. “It’s been happening, but no awareness has been brought to it (until recently). I decided this was a topic I wanted people to know about.”

In some ways, Stabler has operated similarly in her role as a school board member. She has worn her own designs to district events, often paired with a family heirloom turquoise necklace her mother gave her. Some of her campaign materials include a picture of her wearing regalia. All of it is a way of sharing her culture, she says.

Learning to lead in schools

As with her fashion week collection, Stabler’s goals go beyond clothes: She would like to see changes to the K-12 curriculum that would include more Native American history and Kansas history.

“Most kids don’t even know that the city they live in is named after Indians. They don’t know that the state is named after Indians,” she said. “I want to bring awareness. I want that to be part of Kansas history.”

Stabler says she doesn’t lead with the fact that she is Indian — her preferred term — but she believes her identity has bearing on the work she does as a school board member. “I didn’t run as a minority,” Stabler said, “I ran because I wanted to win on my own.”

That said, “I feel like I can do a lot for minorities because I am a minority,” she said. “I can do a lot for Indian students because that of course is my heart — keeping our traditions alive.”

Stabler says she was motivated to run for the school board because of her experience working as a USD 259 employee. When she and her husband moved back to Wichita (they live in a historic house in Wichita’s midtown) Stabler says she applied for a part-time job working in the cafeteria kitchen at Pleasant Valley Middle School as a means of connecting with her community. She went on to work as a paraeducator at the same school for two years before resigning to focus on her design work. 

“While I was working as a para, I was just seeing things and I would come home and just complain,” she said. “You know, the teachers don’t have time, there’s no money in the classroom. A lot of things for the classroom were coming out of my pocket.”

Stabler complained to her husband so much, he suggested she run for school board. But Stabler says she never considered running for office, and she didn’t think she knew enough people in Wichita.

Participating in the Eisenhower Excellence in Public Service Series gave her the confidence to reconsider, she says. The mission of the program is “to prepare Republican women to seek greater involvement in leadership, government and politics,” according to its website.

After Stabler graduated with the 2020 cohort, she dipped her toe into politics, first serving as the treasurer for Susanne Haynes’ 2020 unsuccessful bid for Kansas House seat for District 103 and as a Republican precinct comitteewoman.

Five years had passed since her husband first suggested she run for the school board, and “I just got an inkling that I felt I could make a difference,” she said.

“​​I have five kids,” she said. “Some went to private, some went to public, so I have experience in both worlds. And so I felt like I have a good perspective on what works and what I didn’t feel worked.”

Life as a Wichita school board member

Stabler was one of three conservatives newly elected to the board last fall. The others are Diane Albert and Kathy Bond. The three often vote as a bloc, including recent votes against placing a ballot measure before voters that would change the way board members are elected. 

Stabler says when she joined the board in January, she didn’t know much about how the school board operated beyond what she had been told and what she had read. She’s immersed herself in studying the structure of the Wichita Public Schools system and its budget, which, Stabler notes, totals nearly $1 billion — larger than the budget of the city of Wichita.

One of the aspects of her position that Stabler better understands now is the relationship the school board has with Superintendent Alicia Thompson, their “only employee.”

“She’s been great. She is very accessible,” she said. “I was led to believe that might not be the case, but she is so cooperative, accessible answers quickly, upbeat, positive. She’s got a great administration behind her that supports her and supports us as board members.”

Halfway into her first year on the board, Stabler says she is still learning her job. She has also invested a significant amount of time getting to know the 16 schools in her district.

“The only way I can learn my job is to be immersed in it,” she said. “I go to all my schools … I went to the Good Apple Awards, I went to retirement parties. I just tried to be visible so that I can create a good communication line.”

Sometimes visibility doubles as an opportunity to share her culture, as when Stabler has chosen traditional regalia she designed and fabricated to wear to special events.

One was North High School’s commencement ceremony, at which two Native American students were barred from wearing mortar boards that included eagle feathers and beading. A Wichita Public Schools policy bans decorated graduation caps, but a 2018 Kansas law says that state agencies may not prevent Native Americans from wearing regalia or “objects of cultural significance” at public events.

“Whoever made the decision … was not aware (of the law), and they made an honest mistake,” Stabler said. “They’re going to make sure everyone is educated as to what’s appropriate culturally.”

She supported the first annual Wichita Public Schools Native American graduation ceremony, which she also attended in regalia.

“Wearing my Indian clothes was to not only represent my culture, but also the high achievement of students and to honor them,” she said. “When I knew that I was going to be shaking students’ hands, there wasn’t a question that I would be wearing my traditional dress.”

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Emily Christensen is a journalist based in Wichita who writes about arts and culture, in addition to running a freelance writing and editing business. Follow her on Twitter @SchmemilyEmily.