Representatives from Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Department of Education presented at a conference in Indiana in April.

Department of Education Director Rachel Watson and Assistant Director Charles Lee III traveled to the IDEAL Conference (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access in Leadership) in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4 through 6.

The conference opened at the Madam Walker Legacy Center, where Watson delivered a land acknowledgement to attendees before the night’s keynote speakers took the stage.

“The Potawatomi do not belong to Oklahoma. We belong to the lands in the Great Lakes region where food grows on water. Many Potawatomi remain here to this day, but Citizen Potawatomi came to Oklahoma through a mix of forced removals, allotments and broken treaties,” Watson explained during their statement.

“The story of the Potawatomi Nation and the story of any tribe in the United States when faced with colonialism, is one of resilience. My ancestors persisted so I could be here with you today,” they said. “All of us are here together to better each of our respective communities and to support each other in that dream. I look forward to the way we all learn and grow together in the coming days.”

Assistant Director of Education Charles Lee III speaks during a panel about TEDs at the IDEAL Conference.

In addition to sitting in on panels covering everything from accommodations in education to the impact of rural colleges, Watson and Lee also presented a panel Saturday morning. The two spoke about working with TEDs (Tribal Education Departments), including some of the things TEDs offer and the best ways to approach TEDs to inquire about partnerships.

“It was really pleasant to see all the educators standing strong and leaning on each other in this time of educational uncertainty, especially with all the legislation passed to hinder or remove DEI departments from campuses,” Lee said.

Partnering with IU

It was a partnership with Indiana University that ultimately led to Watson and Lee’s attendance at the conference.

Watson said in 2023, three different employees from three different Indiana University departments reached out to CPN to inquire about ways they might partner with the Tribe. Sherene Ing and her assistant, Adin Kawate, from the First Nations Center at IU-Bloomington, made the trip to Oklahoma to meet in person with several tribes who had been removed from Indiana.

When the IDEAL conference was announced as a regional offshoot of NCORE (National Conference on Race and Ethnicity), Watson and Lee thought it would be beneficial to attend. They reached out and were connected with Dr. Monica Johnson, the lead conference organizer, who offered flights, hotel rooms and free registration for all DoE staff, as well as a conference session and the opening slot at the first session.

“Dr. Johnson did not ask for a land acknowledgement, but rather gave me the space to say whatever I and Tribal leadership felt was important to share with that audience and space. Most conference or events that invite local or removed tribes to share a land acknowledgement make a specific ask that the tribal leaders make specific statements acknowledging colonialism, genocide, the theft of land, but without any other action to make reparations or repair what damage they can,” Watson said. “Asking a Native person to do the acknowledging of colonialism can sometimes be like asking the victim of a crime to apologize for it; we’re allowed to share how we were wronged but there is no expectation that there will be any attempt to make it right.”

Watson appreciated Potawatomi representation at a conference that, in its inaugural year, took place on Potawatomi ancestral land. They also were pleased to have the opportunity to be included in more than just the opening remarks and to have a chance to interact with other attendees.

Though the session led by Watson and Lee was the only one that focused on tribes and tribal citizens, Watson said it made an impact to have that session, and that they hope the conference continues to be inclusive and welcomes more Native representatives next year.

“It was radically different from how other professional organizations and conferences handle including and partnering with tribes, in a way that makes me optimistic about continuing to work with Indiana University in general and this conference specifically,” Watson said.

Watson said though it might seem like a small step, it is a good start to lead to something bigger and a good model for other institutions that seek to build relationships with tribal governments.

“There is a lot of work to be done to get equity for Native students at every level of education,” they said. “We are fighting an uphill battle against centuries of colonialism and being an overlooked population. To me, this was a huge step in the right direction for strong representation and good relationships between our Tribe and Indiana University.”

Learn more about the IDEAL conference at For more about the CPN Department of Education, visit