The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Cultural Heritage Center began 2023 under new leadership.
In January, Blake Norton took over the position as director of the CHC and tribal historic preservation officer (THPO), and Keisha Wolf signed on as assistant director. However, both have worked there much longer than that.
Norton started at the CHC in 2005 after graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in anthropology, where he also worked stints as a student at the Oklahoma Archeological Survey, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History and Oklahoma History Center. He heard CPN was opening a new cultural center and made the hour drive to Shawnee to hand deliver his resume.
“It just so happened that the director of Cultural Development was in the office and asked if I wanted to sit down and discuss the position. It turned into a two-hour interview, and I got the job,” Norton said.
He first worked as the Tribal archivist and then assumed the position of curator before being named director and THPO. During that time, Norton also pursued his master’s degree in museum studies at OU and graduated in 2010.
Wolf earned her bachelor’s degree in business from East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, in 2008.
In 2013, she started working for the Tribe as an administrative assistant for the Environmental Department. Wolf began working for the CHC in 2017 as the facilities manager and director’s assistant, which was her role before accepting the assistant director position.
Wolf, speaking about what drew her to work for the CHC, said, “I wanted to know more about my culture because I didn’t grow up knowing about the Potawatomi side.”
Norton said he and Wolf make a good team, with him overseeing tribal historic preservation, the institutional and programming side of the CHC, community and academic outreach, and Wolf overseeing the administrative, business and facility management, among many other duties they partner on.
“I think people misinterpret the diverse roles and experience needed to operate a facility like this,” Norton said. “Most see it simply as a group of people that really love history and culture, while others lean toward solely academic or scientific programming. In realty, it’s much more diverse, especially for a facility of our size and the programs we offer, allowing us to really utilize the background and expertise of our whole team.”
Though they have taken on different titles, Norton said much of what they do in their new roles is similar to what they were doing in the interim since the previous director, Dr. Kelli Mosteller, accepted a position with Harvard University in July 2022.
“That’s not to say that responsibilities haven’t grown, but the interim really helped us to acclimate to our new positions,” Norton added, especially since both will retain their previous roles in addition to the new responsibilities as director and assistant director.
And he credits Dr. Mosteller’s leadership for where they are now, adding that it allowed them to build a solid foundation.
“A lot of credit has to be given to Kelli for her leadership in allowing us to grow both professionally and personally,” Norton said.
Norton said the CHC has “grown exponentially” since a flood and redesign in 2014, and they plan to help the CHC continue to grow. Throughout the next six months to a year, they have many projects in the works, especially for digital programming and outreach.
“A big focus is going to be our digital outreach,” he said. “The COVID period allowed us to regroup and recenter our focus. Digital programming is something we always wanted to do; COVID just expedited things.”
They want to enhance genealogical programs and eventually use augmented reality to allow visitors to learn about culturally and historically relevant locations.
Another area that they want to expand upon is the Tribal Heritage Project, which started as an oral history project to capture recordings of Tribal members and preserve that knowledge for posterity.
“What we are developing is the natural evolution of the Tribal Heritage Project, using technology and digital platforms to expand outreach to all corners of the community,” Norton said.
By allowing Tribal members to log onto a digital portal that seasonally prompts them with questions, they hope to make the interview process more comfortable, and as a result, get more detailed information and more personable responses. They will also be expanding in-person interviews at gatherings and other events. Since they will solicit new questions every quarter, the interview process becomes more than a one-time activity. True connections will be established with the community. Additionally, they want to intwine those interviews with genealogical and family history resources.
They also want to expand digital access to the CHC’s collection and create a platform that allows visitors to view and add captions to unidentified images. Staff are also creating tutorials about how to use the numerous programs the CHC offers as well as covering topics such as caring for family heirlooms, and managing and digitizing family collections.
There are also plans to increase acquisition of collections from partnering institutions, such as universities and historical societies, and to develop community-based curriculum for the child development centers and afterschool programs.
Improving exhibits, gift shop
For the museum itself, plans are in the works to update most of the interactive displays, implement a six-to-nine-month schedule for temporary exhibits, expand resources in the library, and give a facelift to the classroom and gift shop.
“We are redoing the look of the gift shop,” Wolf said. “We’ve had it repainted and installed new furniture.”
They also plan to bring in more Woodland-style items, focusing more on culturally-oriented merchandise made by Potawatomi and Indigenous peoples.
Norton said they are making room for new products, but also “many Tribal members are professional artists and knowledge keepers, so we want to provide a space for cultural and artistic expression with the ability to earn a living.”
Norton and Wolf’s list of improvements and plans will likely continue to grow.
“Some will see putting our plans into action as change. We see it as growth,” Norton said.
For a virtual tour or to see more information about the CHC, visit potawatomiheritage.com.