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August 8, 2017

Search for country living brings long CPN career for tribal member

The Zientek (Pecore) Family in 2017

The Zientek (Pecore) Family in 2017

Through the eyes of those who have been closely associated with the tribe for decades, seeing the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s tribal complex as it appears today marks a significant change. Long gone are the gravel topped country roads of Hardesty and Beard, where busy two and four lane roads now run. What are parking lots and well-lit entertainment venues for softball teams, bowlers and restaurant patrons once were empty fields only busy during the height of the old Citizen Band Potawatomi Intertribal Powwow.

Many long time employees and tribal members can recollect these events, but few may be able to go into the details of the interactions they had as well as Margaret Zientek, assistant director of the recently renamed Citizen Potawatomi Nation Workforce & Social Services Department. The Weldfelt – Whitehead – Pecore family descendent has seen a lot over the course of a life and career intertwined with the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Her family has deep roots in Pottawatomie County, with Zientek’s Pecore family allotments all within a stone’s throw of CPN’s FireLake complex. Contrary to many Citizen Potawatomi of the Baby Boomer generation and likely a product of her close proximity to it, Zientek’s upbringing co-mingled closely with the tribe’s affairs.

“We always knew we were Indian,” she said. “My father’s side is Polish and my mother’s side is French-Indian. My grandfather was the chairman of the tribe at one time.”

Pointing out the window at the CPN Administration Building just north of Squirrel Creek, Zientek gestured to a number of locations frequented by her family as a child.

“From this building right here I could stand and tell you about being under those pecan trees and having native dances. I could tell you that where the roundhouse is at the powwow grounds, that’s where the community center was that had those little fold up chairs with slats in the bottom that sure did beat you hard when we had community gatherings like pie suppers.”

She recalled the gatherings and dances of her youth where local families of Potawatomi would have met, had dinner and celebrated their community. And the wooden slatted chairs, Zientek vividly remembers them and their impact on her young psyche.

“They moved, they pinched!” she emphasized. “That community center had a raised floor too so if you had a skunk, it stunk. But it was beautiful, especially dancing under the trees.”

The family’s longtime home, built before Oklahoma was a state as an original homestead structure, still stands today. She recalled the stories from her elders when Pottawatomie County’s local Ku Klux Klan chapter burned crosses out front in an attempt to intimidate the family. Zientek’s mother and father continue to live there, and each Sunday the family, many of whom still live within an hour’s drive, gather to break bread just as they have for decades.

Though born in Shawnee, Oklahoma, Zientek moved with the family to the vicinity of Bearden, Oklahoma at age six to follow her father’s job on the Transok. She graduated Wetumka High School and attended Northeastern Oklahoma State University at Tahlequah, Oklahoma, right in the heart of the Cherokee Nation. She graduated in 1981 with a double major in tourism and business management.

She took her passion for tourism management to her first job out of college, working for the Texas Indian Commission at the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas. Eventually she left Texas, next working in Tulsa’s corporate world, first for Pizza Hut and then for Avis Rent-a-Car. Zientek served in a supervisory role at both companies and said she often put in 60 to 80 hour work weeks.

Though both jobs were stable, there came a point where the practicality of raising her daughter Tesia in Tulsa began to make less sense.

“I had her (Tesia) in Catholic school as a third grader and I was looking at how I was going to afford to keep her in that school system. I just couldn’t afford it,” she noted. “I wanted her to experience country living, so I took a 50 percent cut in pay and came down here.”

In 1997 she stepped through the doors at Citizen Potawatomi Nation Employment and Training Program, but not as an employee.

“I went to E&T to ask for help to locate a job in the area,” she said.

It didn’t take long for the department to find a role for her. The tribe had just gone through the process of getting the department certified as a Tribal 477 program, allowing it to provide education and professional assistance to Native Americans in CPN’s jurisdiction. Through the 477 program, the tribe could co-mingle federal funds for this purpose instead of running exclusive, competing departments that provided the same service. To those who are more familiar with the extensive breadth of enterprises and employees that the CPN boasts today, the tribal structure that Zientek joined as an employee in April 1997 was markedly different in appearance and size.

This was still a time before it initiated self-governance, and the number of employees numbered just more than 400 individuals. The gaming enterprises were all contained in what is today FireLake Entertainment Center, which at the time held a bingo hall, pari-mutuel betting and a  bowling alley.

“When I came in,” Zientek recalled, “most of us, we knew each other.”

Zientek gives one the feeling that even if they’ve just met her, she knows them already. This has served in her success in helping develop the CPN Employment and Training, now called CPN Workforce and Social Services, as assistant director under longtime Director Carol Clay-Levi. Serving as part of an adult workforce and youth development program is unique role, but requires similarly long hours to those she put in during her stint in the corporate world. The logical question to ask then is; why take the pay cut just for country living?

“I believe in what I’m doing. I believe in helping people get a job.”

That ethos has taken her down paths while working for the tribe that she would never have imagined. She’s made several appearances at the U.S. Capitol to address Congress over the years, providing testimony on tribal views of the legislation impacting 477 programs across the country. Zientek is a regular at 477 and workforce development conferences throughout Indian Country and continues to play an important role in sharing the perspective of CPN at these forums. Given the Orwellian nature of federal directives, hers is an important voice to have advocating on the tribe’s behalf.

Zientek recalled an example with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a now-infamous Thanksgiving dinner cooked by tribal staff members from the Early Head Start Program.

“They told you (tribal departments) that you should collaborate and share, but if you did, you were told not to do it that way.”

When staff members cooked a Thanksgiving dinner using donated turkeys as part of their in-kind work, HHS disallowed it. Had the staff members not touched the donated turkeys, they would have been allowed to count them in their reporting. In another instance, bureaucrats in Washington encouraged the tribal department to hire staff and approved the job posting requirements. However, they then demanded to review the resumes of all the applicants.

“We just told them ‘we have hired someone who meets those qualifications, you don’t need their resume. We don’t need your approval.’”

Developing culture

Zientek is also one of the leading movers behind the successful Potawatomi Leadership Program, which brings CPN members in their first year of college to a six-week course at tribal headquarters to learn about the business and culture of their tribe. Zientek laughed as she recalled the circumstances surrounding her appointment as house mother for the students that live at the tribe’s Sharp House each summer.

“I was in the meeting and not paying attention, having a side conversation when someone said ‘Hey Margaret can be house mother.’ I didn’t have enough time to do anything except respond ‘say what?!’”

Her presence in that house with those students is essential though. Many come to CPN each summer with a hesitance due to their lack of familiarity with the tribe and its culture.

Like many Citizen Potawatomi, Zientek’s family has descendants from a range of ethnic backgrounds, hers specifically being Polish, French and Potawatomi. With shorter hair and a lighter complexion, she doesn’t fit what popular culture would have one believe is a standard Native American look. It’s an issue that she’s run into during her life and work. She recalled an instance working with other tribal 477 program professionals when a representative from another tribe referred disparagingly to non-Natives and stared right at her.

“It was hostile, I’ve had it happen on occasion,” Zientek acknowledged.

She instructs those PLP students who feel awkward in their initial experiences with the culture and practices of their ancestors that being Potawatomi isn’t about looks, but rather adherence to the tribe’s culture in their own lives.

Given her family’s proximity to the tribal government headquarters in northern Pottawatomie County as well as her longtime service as an employee, Zientek also provided a unique perspective on the history of the tribe’s cultural events like the old intertribal powwow. She recalled the fraught atmosphere when the original Citizen Band Potawatomi Intertribal Powwow rolled around, when patrons would brush aside her staff’s directions when they were charged with supervising parking at what was then one of the country’s largest powwow events. She explained her agreement with the decision to change the powwow’s format to a closed, CPN-only event, when just a fraction of participants in the dance competitions were Citizen Potawatomi.

“We didn’t buy into the powwow circuit and the idea that ‘you have to do it this way,’” said Zientek. “We (Citizen Potawatomi) looked at it as a gathering of families and friends where we were learning and sharing…and yes it was nice to watch all these fancy dancers. But they were out for money, not for culture.”

Her mentorship doesn’t stop with her charges in the employment and training and PLP programs either. Several of her family members, including her brother Tim and daughter Tesia work for the tribe. Tim is director of housekeeping, fire and emergency management while Tesia is the director of the department of education. Many more have worked for the tribe in the past.

For one who has quite likely almost seen it all when it comes to CPN, it’s fortunate that she took that pay cut all those years ago to get that country living experience.