In honor of Native American heritage month, we connected with Kristina Hyatt, a dental hygienist who is a member of the Cherokee Nation and the former Miss Native American USA. Her work has been transformative for her community and other Native American communities across the country. In addition to her endeavors to educate Native youth about dental health, she is the brand-new author of a children’s book, Shelby Goes to the Dentist. The multi-talented Kristina Hyatt illuminated the challenges she is working to better and learned a lot about how she’s transforming dental care one tooth at a time.
1. What drew you to the dental health profession?
Back in high school, they do career days, maybe in 10th or 11th grade, and I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I decided to look into dental hygiene. I was drawn to the idea of wearing scrubs (laughs). In the summer of my junior year, I decided to do a job shadowing opportunity with the leader of our dental program here, who did a lot of community outreach and worked several days in the dental clinic.
While I was in college at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, I learned about Deamante Driver, a 12-year-old boy who ended up dying of an abscessed tooth. The Driver family faced multiple challenges — poverty, access to resources, obstacles with Medicaid, resulting in an easily preventable health problem turning deadly.
The infection ended up entering his bloodstream and brain — his life could have been spared if his infected tooth had just been removed. It pulled on my heartstrings, and I realized it could happen in our community here, in Cherokee. I decided to do anything I could to help that from happening to our Native American children back home.
After I graduated from UNC-Asheville, I went to dental hygiene school. When I completed the program, I worked for two years with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian children’s dental program. Fortunately, our tribe can provide our children with orthodontics if they need them. And then, after two years, I became pregnant. Since I had my son, I have been a stay-at-home mom but continue to do outreach and education in my free time.
2. You were crowned Miss Native American USA in 2015 — what inspired you to try out for the pageant and what was that experience like?
I decided to try out because it was a national title, and I wanted to promote the expansion of dental health for Native American children.
It was an amazing experience. I had participated in local pageants in my hometown, so it was similar — but for this pageant, I traveled to Arizona and only had two family members with me. During that time, my Dad was sick. Otherwise, he and my mom would have come with me. But I also used that as motivation to go out there and win for them.
The pageant had a familiar structure to other pageants — but tweaked to highlight Native American culture. We perform a traditional talent, model our traditional clothing and share some of the history behind it, and most importantly — pick a platform and let the judges know what we would promote during our reign if we won.
3. How did your life change after winning?
Winning helped me reach more people and create broader awareness — even within my own Cherokee community. It's amazing how kids will see me out and get excited. One day me and my mom pulled up to the Food Lion supermarket parking lot, and a little girl said to her grandma, “Oh look, it’s the tooth fairy!”
I was also able to visit the Lakota Sioux in Pineridge, South Dakota — the poorest reservation in the United States. Me and my team were able to stay there for a week and travel to all the local schools, where we did oral health presentations. We also distributed free oral health products that we collected through a Smile Drive in conjunction with America’s ToothFairy — a non-profit organization based out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Their mission is to support those bringing dental health education, prevention, and treatment services to underserved children. I try to do a Smile Drive every year to benefit Native American children across the country.
4. What happened for you next?
In 2017 I applied for a DreamStarter grant, and… won! Running Strong for American Indian Youth has a special $10k grant that they award each year to 10 Native Americans. I applied with the same concept of promoting oral health for Native American kids and wanted to bring to life this idea of the Native Tooth Fairy, where I would wear traditional clothing to relate to youth on a more personal level. I was so happy when I found out that I'd won and so happy that the Native Tooth Fairy really resonated, especially here in my hometown. I made a video for Native American youth featuring the Native Tooth Fairy, which has been a real hit!
As well, I was able to travel to Oklahoma to visit schools on Native land there. People were very excited to see me. My overall goal is to get kids excited to take care of their teeth, and I want to inspire Native American youth to pursue careers in the health field. There aren't many Native dentists, hygienists, and other healthcare workers — we need more.
5. Tell us about your new book, Shelby Goes to the Dentist — what inspired you to create it?
I have dreamed of creating this book for a long time. The main character is inspired by little cousin Shelby. She was a little girl when I started telling her about my idea; I wanted to show her that if you set your mind to something, you can accomplish it.
It was a long and challenging process. I had the vision and took the pictures, but then things would happen, and I’d put it on hold — but finally, this year, I was able to link up with an artist here in Cherokee, North Carolina, and the book came to full life. The illustrator, Preston Bark, has had a tough life but is such an amazing and talented artist. I hope that this book helps open other opportunities for him; I would love for his work to get out there more widely.
Here’s another reason this book matters: representation is SO important. I want to make sure that Native American youth have books and resources that have people in them that look like them, so they are more likely to pay attention and take the book's advice.
The overall goal for Shelby Goes to the Dentist is to help reduce dental anxiety that both a parent and child might experience before they go to a dental appointment. Perhaps they can read this book together the night before, and it can help soothe some jangled nerves. The book goes step-by-step through what will happen at a dental visit — and after working with kids, I felt it was needed. I also included "tips from the Native Tooth Fairy," like how many times a day to brush and how long.
The challenges faced by Native American tribes in the United States are many, but we can all help make a difference. If you are inspired by reading about Kristina Hyatt, perhaps you may consider contributing to one of her Smile Drives or buying her new book for a child in your life. Awareness is the first step in manifesting transformative and lasting change.