The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Department of Education unveiled a new program this spring designed to help CPN students fully embrace their Potawatomi heritage.

The first-ever Coming Into the Circle event took place at the South Reunion Hall on the CPN Festival Grounds. Organizers said they hoped the day’s events would encourage high school graduates to claim their Indigenous identity and help them feel they belong to a bigger community.

Department of Education staff Rachel Watson and Matt Higdon first developed the idea to increase student engagement, said Interim Director of Education Charles Lee.

“They realized that some students may not feel comfortable engaging with the Nation at events like (Family Reunion) Festival because it could be overwhelming or they’re at a different point in their journey connecting with their Tribal identity,” Lee said. “We decided, ‘Let’s have this kind of crash course or beginner course. They can come to the Nation and see what the space looks like and feels like.’ We just make it a welcoming space for folks who maybe have never visited Shawnee.”

Cultural activities

The day began with a tour of the CPN Eagle Aviary to learn more about the spiritual importance of eagles within Potawatomi culture.

Parents then participated in a talking circle about concerns they have as their child prepares to start college. They also discussed the challenges of exploring their heritage. Students held a separate talking circle where they could discuss reconnecting to their culture and ask questions about starting college.

Department of Education staff shared their own personal journey of embracing their cultural identity and offered guidance on how the Nation can help students as they begin exploring their heritage.

“You’ll always have your Native values to rely on as you encounter challenges,” said Jamelle Payne, safe and stable families education counselor, Workforce Development & Social Services. “The Native community will sustain and uplift you.”

Payne discussed with students the WF&SS programs that serve Potawatomi across the state.

Lauren Bristow, clinical operations director from CPN Health Services, offered a presentation on how attendees can access health care services while they are at school. She said that it is possible for Tribal members to use other U.S. Indian Health Services facilities while they are away from their communities.

Education services staff told the students about higher education scholarships available through CPN as well as internships and programs like the Potawatomi Leadership Program and Mdamen, the seven-week virtual program created to foster Tribal connections across the country.

As the activities concluded, the group took part in a make-and-take activity and created medicine pouches containing sema (tobacco), sage, cedar and sweetgrass. Many students and their families then headed to FireLake Arena to watch the Potawatomi Fire with complimentary tickets provided by the Department of Education.

Positive responses

Lee said the Department of Education staff was pleased with the response to this first-ever Coming Into the Circle event.

“I could not be happier. Some of the students reached out to us after the fact with emails and thank you cards, just letting us know that they really enjoyed the event,” he said. “We had students travel from Perkins (Oklahoma) and even as far away as Texas who came up for the event, and they were really impressed with the programing.”

Heather Swann and her daughter, Camryn, drove from Denton, Texas, to participate.

“I wanted her to learn more about what she’s drawing from and how she’ll have opportunities in the future to give back,” Heather said.

Heather enjoyed the talking circle the most because she was able to hear what other parents are thinking about as their children prepare for college. Talking helped her understand that many parents are facing the same challenges.

Camryn, a Bourassa family descendant who is planning to attend Texas Tech University, agreed.

“I actually did have a girl come up to me and say, ‘Oh yeah, I thought the same thing, you know?’ So I liked being able to connect with another (student).”

The Payton family drove from Perkins, Oklahoma, to attend. Brandon and Ivan Payton, both Higbee family descendants, hoped to learn more about their heritage and Tribal services.

“I was hoping to learn more about the Tribe and see what they offer,” said Brandon Payton. “And I certainly did. I really enjoyed the Aviary and the talking circle. Talking with other parents made me feel like there were people I can relate with, and it really felt like we were family.”

Ivan Payton, a Perkins High School senior, is planning to attend Oklahoma State University and major in finance.

“I think it was really cool being able to see other people that are part of my Tribe and my age,” Ivan said.

He thinks the event is just the start of his journey to connect with his Potawatomi heritage.

Lee said the response to the program was overwhelmingly positive.

“We developed the program mainly for our students,” he said. “But, as a parent of a Native child, there are things that parents maybe don’t have the tools to help with, if they’re not particularly engaged with the Nation. They may not know how to be good advocates for their children, to be okay occupying Native spaces and things like that. So being able to talk it out with other parents just strengthens their resolve as Indigenous parents.”

Encouraged by the responses, plans are already underway for the second Coming Into the Circle event.

“I think we’ll expand it next year, maybe do a half-day and tour of the Cultural Heritage Center as well as the Aviary. We still want to do the talking circles because I think that was probably the most meaningful part to let them have a safe space to discuss kind of where they’re at,” Lee said.

Students and parents who are interested in attending Coming Into the Circle should follow the CPN Department of Education Facebook page, or they may receive education emails by signing up through the CPN portal at