Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Cultural Heritage Center and Information Technology Department won the Oklahoma Historical Society’s 2021 Bruce T. Fisher Award for Outstanding Oklahoma History Project for their online platform, Ancestors, a new family history research tool accessible to Tribal members through portal.potawatomi.org. A banquet was held March 24, 2022, at the Oklahoma History Center in Oklahoma City to honor award recipients.
Launched in June 2021, Ancestors reflects many years of work at the Cultural Heritage Center to preserve and make available to Tribal members an extensive archive of documents relating to Citizen Potawatomi Nation genealogy and history, especially during the period of removal from Kansas to allotments in Indian Territory.
“Being a source for family research and history has always been one of our mandates,” said Dr. Kelli Mosteller, director of the Cultural Heritage Center.
For many years, Tribal members wanting to research their families had to sift through large, grey archival boxes by hand — a tedious and unsecure process. As more people sought information about their families, the CHC started photocopying and digitizing records.
Bringing them online was the next logical step in developing the Cultural Heritage Center’s archive and research services to Tribal members.
In a recent interview with the Hownikan, Dr. Mosteller explained the Ancestors platform combines data from the Tribe’s archival holdings with shared knowledge passed down through generations and across kinship ties with Potawatomi throughout Turtle Island.
“The tie that binds”
The Oklahoma Historical Society award recognizes Ancestors’ significant contribution to the field of Oklahoma history. Blake Norton, senior curator at the CHC, and Dr. Mosteller were encouraged to apply for the award by colleagues within the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries and Museums as well as the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.
For Norton, the nomination is a great testament to value of the CHC’s work and the way that tribal, state and federal histories overlap — something that he and the Heritage Center staff know well. The additional recognition from colleagues from other areas of Oklahoma history is an honor.
“It’s really murky, I think, for a lot of people in Oklahoma,” Norton said. “They’re aware that they live among Native communities, but they don’t really understand what those Native communities are about or how they exist and how they operate.”
Many Oklahomans know about the Land Runs and the path to statehood, but not many know that those major events in the state’s history stemmed specifically from tribal relations with the U.S. government.
The allotment period in particular was critical to the processes that led to the Land Run and to Oklahoma statehood, and the Tribe’s archive and historical work shed light on that history in great detail.
“We really have a grip on what the allotment process entailed for the community, who came down (from Kansas), when they came down, why they came down, how the process worked,” Norton said. “It’s necessary for people to understand that this history is part of yours, too.”
Norton is excited to see how the directives of the Cultural Heritage Center and years of work coincide with the projects of the Oklahoma Historical Society.
For Dr. Mosteller, the Oklahoma Historical Society award also highlights the important place that Oklahoma holds in Citizen Potawatomi history.
Even though the majority of Tribal members who use the Ancestors portal reside outside of Oklahoma, CPN’s history is still “uniquely tied to the reservation in Indian Territory and the history that played out here,” Mosteller said.
Many Potawatomi who live and work in Oklahoma, including Dr. Mosteller, associate the idea of “homeland” with the Great Lakes. However, for many others who have moved away from Oklahoma over time, it is the homeland.
“Oklahoma is the tie that binds,” she said. “(There is) that ancestral connection, even if your family left the reservation while it was still Indian Territory.”
While Oklahoma plays an essential part in Potawatomi history, it is important to Dr. Mosteller that access to — and authority on — that history not be limited to the geographical site of the Cultural Heritage Center or CPN jurisdiction. Potawatomi history, heritage and community far exceed those borders.
“We want people to understand that you don’t have to be here in Shawnee to be a community, to be a family,” she said. “It doesn’t take that to be a Tribe, especially in the 21st century. It’s just knowing who you are, knowing about your community, being prideful of that and wanting to share that.”
Since the Ancestors platform was unveiled publicly in June 2021, Norton says that more than 6,000 people have registered their profiles.
Each registrant is able to access archival documents, build family trees, upload documents and photographs to their own profiles, and connect with other Tribal members through a friend request function.
The Ancestors development team considered a two-way interface high priority. Though extensive, the Tribe’s archives also contain missing or contradictory information.
“We cannot be so bold as to assume that we here at the CHC have all of the information,” Dr. Mosteller said. “We also know that Tribal members not only have treasures and information about their own family members, but about themselves because they are our future ancestors.”
The archives develop over time as users engage with and contribute to the material on the site. Family History Specialist Czarina Thompson encourages users to continue to return to the portal often to see updated information and view the collections with a fresh perspective.
“As you revisit and go back, you’re going to find something because you’re building on the knowledge. As the knowledge builds, it keeps building. So I think that’s really important,” she said.
“It’s a bit of a learning process as we go through on how to build a database that also takes into account a lot of missing information,” Dr. Mosteller said. She appreciates the patience and feedback Tribal members have extended throughout the whole process.
“This is something that’s always going to be adaptable and updated and made better,” she said.
Norton sees this new platform for family and historical research as a part of a period of reawakening in the community, calling it a “real world application” of the tradition of the Seven Fires Prophecy. The Cultural Heritage Center has built much of its work around this prophecy, including the layout of the museum itself.
“The Seven Fires Prophecy … talks about a time of rejuvenation and the new people being born and reawakened to walk along this path of their ancestors — pick up all these missing pieces to put the culture back together,” Norton said.
He looks forward to seeing how the program continues to grow, including more educational opportunities and awareness.
Founded in 1893, the Oklahoma Historical Society works to collect, preserve and share the history and culture of the state of Oklahoma and its people. Find the OHS online at okhistory.org or follow them on social media @okhistory. Visit the Cultural Heritage Center online at potawatomiheritage.com or on Facebook @CPNCulturalHeritage, and access Ancestors at portal.potawatomi.org.