The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Department of Education held its first Graduation Celebration in April 2019. The annual event held each spring recognizes the accomplishments of the Tribe’s students from the previous calendar year as they graduate from high school or colleges and universities with various degrees.
The department returned to an in-person event in May 2022 after canceling the 2020 celebration and hosting a virtual event in 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. The staff looked forward to welcoming graduates and their families back to the CPN Cultural Heritage Center for a meal, gifts, drumming and recognition of their accomplishments. Department of Education Director Tesia Zientek enjoys making the connection between the Tribe and students who utilized the scholarships to achieve life goals.
“It’s incredibly meaningful for me and I hope the rest of the staff, too, because we spend a lot of our time emailing, approving scholarships, talking on the phone,” she said. “But to be able to see somebody in person and understand what that support has meant to them, it’s a really powerful reminder of how special it is that we get to do what we do.”
Department of Education Assistant Director Charles Lee spends his days helping Tribal members overcome obstacles to completing a degree.
“There are so many factors at play that make graduating, especially from higher education, so much harder for Native American students,” he said. “Sure, they get to have their ceremony and walk across the stage. But I think to have your tribe acknowledge that you have done something special is really meaningful and impactful.”
The Department of Education established the event at the request of Vice-Chairman Linda Capps, and she attended and spoke at the 2022 celebration. More than 60 students and family members came together to recognize the bright path ahead of them.
“I can only imagine how powerful it is for Tribal leadership who are actually allocating these dollars for us to pay over $6 million a year in Tribal scholarships for us to be able to have this department. They’re really getting to see the impact of that investment,” Zientek said.
Zientek noted that many Tribal members have no connection to CPN or Potawatomi culture until they reach out to apply for a scholarship.
“If we can in any way connect them to other Tribal resources or get a fire going inside them to want to learn more, that’s a huge honor and responsibility for us,” she said.
The Department of Education made a point to incorporate many cultural aspects into the celebration, including songs from two Potawatomi drum groups, a prayer in Bodéwadmimwen (Potawatomi language) and gifts full of cultural significance, including a feather from CPN’s Eagle Aviary.
“We definitely want to try to not just mirror other graduation banquets and things that they could possibly attend. We want to make it from the ground up a Potawatomi experience,” Lee said.
Jennifer White attended this year’s Graduation Celebration after completing her MBA from Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant.
“This ceremony was something new to me, and I was very taken aback with how beautiful everything was,” White said. “That was the first time in my life that I was able to hear the language and spoken so fluently and beautifully, and it was just an amazing experience for me.”
Many of the students brought several of their relatives across generations, making it a family-oriented affair.
The Department of Education also began planning a yearly art contest to accompany the Graduation Celebration. Tribal members at least 14 years old can enter by sending their work, any style with a Potawatomi theme, to firstname.lastname@example.org. The winner receives a cash prize, and a limited edition print of their work is given to each graduate who participates in the event, both in-person and online.
Zientek imagines Tribal members given a new piece of art at each educational milestone they achieve.
“I just think it’s a really neat way to connect students with their Tribal identity and fellow Tribal citizens, while also helping them maybe start a little art collection and appreciation too,” she said.
Lee hopes the art pieces serve as a reminder of each student’s accomplishment every time they see them.
“It’s just a tangible thing to be like, ‘I did this, and this is what we have to show for it.’ That’s not specifically tied to their school, but it’s tied to their culture. Just a way to remind them that their Tribe’s proud of them,” he said.
In 2022, the Navarre family descendant and graduate Stephanie Hawk won the art contest with her beadwork of a Potawatomi violet in pink and green on a white leather bag. The attendees were given high resolution prints of the violet, reminiscent of regalia applique. In May, she graduated with her bachelor’s in integrative studies with a focus on social sciences and a minor in restorative justice from the University of Oklahoma.
“I just think that was a real honor and that people appreciated it because a lot of times people don’t realize how much work goes into beadwork or how long it takes or the cost of materials,” Hawk said. “And so just seeing that people were excited to receive that and that maybe someone has it hanging on their wall is really cool.”
The department gave a beading kit with each print and hosted a beading class on Zoom. They pair each year’s art piece with something of cultural significance in hopes it inspires graduates to become more involved. White hung the print of Hawk’s work in her office, and it made her want to bead as well.
“I’ve just ordered my supplies. I received my beadwork design book in the mail yesterday. … And I plan on using that to do a little more. I want to learn to do a lot more beadwork,” she said.
That type of engagement represents the overall goal of the art contest and paired gifts given by the Department of Education.
“Our hope is … that it helps them, as (college advisor Matt Higdon) always likes to say, be able to do something Potawatomi every day. Some way to connect with their identity,” Zientek said.
Citizen Potawatomi tribal members attend school from coast to coast and beyond, and the Department of Education sought to create a way for all students to participate in the Graduation Celebration. Now, the “Education” portion of the Tribe’s online portal includes virtual registration.
Those who want to travel for the in-person event and receive their gifts the day of the luncheon can register as “Attending In-Person.” Those who are not able to travel but still wish to participate digitally can select “Attending Virtually.” They will be included on a slideshow and video celebrating the year’s graduates and receive their gifts via mail.
“Please still register. We want to send you a gift. We want to still celebrate you in our video. It’s wonderful if you’re able to make it to Shawnee, but it’s okay if you’re not. And we still want to celebrate you,” Zientek said.
White believes she accomplished her goals with help from the Department of Education, and she was happy to celebrate with them any way possible.
“I thank them so much for doing what they’ve done because that was a tremendous help,” she said.
Find out more about Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Department of Education at cpn.news/education and visit the Tribe’s online portal at portal.potawatomi.org to register for the Graduation Celebration between July 1 and April 15.