By Tesia Zientek, CPN Department of Education Director

On Saturday, April 27, the Citizen Potawatomi Nation hosted its first Graduation Celebration at the CPN Cultural Heritage Center. The CPN Department of Education invited students graduating from high school, undergraduate, graduate and vocational programs to register for the event several months in advance. Thirty-one graduates from as far away as California attended the event along with their family members and friends for a total attendance of 118.

Before the festivities started, Jennifer Randell and Bree Dunham from the CPN Eagle Aviary brought Myanabe, the glove-trained golden eagle, offering eagle blessings to the graduates and their families. To start the event in a traditional way, Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett explained the process of smudging and the origins of the four medicines (tobacco, sage, sweet grass and cedar). Ladies drum group Dewegen Kwek sang an invitation song while I had the honor of smudging all of the guests who wanted to participate. CPN Language Department Director Justin Neely offered a prayer over the graduates and their guests in Potawatomi. Then, we enjoyed a wonderful meal catered by FireLake Bistro. Chairman Barrett and Vice-Chairman Capps each offered inspiring words of congratulations and encouragement.

Next, we unveiled this year’s gift for the graduates. Since we hope that this event becomes an annual celebration, we wanted to ensure that each year’s gift is unique and special. Because CPN is blessed to have many gifted artists, we decided to commission a piece of art each year and create limited prints for the graduates who attend the event. This year, Cloud Hamilton, or Ankwet wzho’cye ge kwe (The Woman Who Paints Clouds), created the work. Cloud is a figurative painter from Southern California who graduated from California State University Channel Islands in 2016 and participated in the Potawatomi Leadership Program in 2013. Cloud’s painting depicts a fist holding a bundle of sage with the Potawatomi word Mishkoswen appearing beneath the image. According to Cloud, “This illustration is inspired by strength and resilience. The raised fist expresses resistance, solidarity and unity. The hand holds a bundle of burning sage, which symbolizes our inner strength (Miskoswen). As Potawatomi people, we smudge to cleanse and purify before the ceremony, and now is a time to cleanse and prepare for something new. You have been preparing for this new journey, so take your steps with confidence knowing your ancestors have your back. We are the keepers of the fire; channel your fire with intensity and authenticity!”

To pair with this year’s art theme, each student also received a bundle of sage.

Internship and Project Coordinator Channing Seikel, who led the effort to plan and prepare for this celebration, announced each graduate and the degree they earned. As graduates came up to receive their gifts, the room erupted in applause to honor their achievement. Each graduate posed for a photo with Chairman and Vice- Chairman. Finally, we invited all graduates to gather for a group photo. As they stood together, Dewegen Kwek drummed a beautiful honor song that roughly translates to “I see Potawatomi people doing things in a good way.”

At each table, guests had an opportunity to write down their words of encouragement for future graduates. A lot of meaningful advice was shared, but Sherry Hazelton, who graduated with her Bachelor of Science in nursing from Oklahoma Christian University, gave the following wisdom: “I encourage you to keep going and never give up no matter how difficult the road may be! You are capable of achieving anything you put your heart and mind to. Your efforts not only represent you, but they depict how strong our Native American roots are.”

Next year, we hope to have even more graduates join our celebration. We have advertised for an Education Art Contest that will allow us to pick next year’s featured art piece. For questions about how to register for the event or how to submit artwork for the contest, please email or call 405-275-3121.