Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member and CPN Department of Education Director Tesia Zientek expands service to Native American education and overall well-being through the National Indian Education Association and American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma board service.
The NIEA focuses on uplifting Native American education, ranging from curriculum development to student access and teacher preparation. Its mission mirrors Zientek’s passions, and she looks forward to serving on the NIEA board of directors.
“It’s a huge honor and responsibility that I do not take lightly,” she said.
During the annual NIEA convention’s general assembly on Oct. 7, the organization announced election results for two at-large positions. The Oklahoma Council for Indian Education nominated Zientek for one of the positions, and NIEA members nationwide cast their votes. She then attended a virtual swearing-in ceremony on Oct. 9.
“I maybe would not have thought I was ready for that had I not had people who reached out and said, ‘We think you are, and we support you.’ And I was willing to accept that nomination because of my work over the past two years with the Oklahoma Council for Indian Education,” she said.
The Weld family descendant dedicates her career to Indian education. She has led the CPN Department of Education since its formation five years ago, which now oversees Tribal scholarships, internships, college counseling and the Potawatomi Leadership Program.
“When I think back, pretty much all of my pivotal life moments can some way be traced back to Tribal educational programming,” Zientek said. “I received a Tribal scholarship. I attended (Johnson O’Malley) functions. I attended employment and training summer camps. … In a lot of ways, Tribal programming has been such a huge, integral part of my life that I recognize its importance, and I now want to give back.”
For Zientek, her drive centers on uplifting and educating future tribal leaders across the country, and the NIEA board position provides that opportunity.
“That’s something that I think tribal nations need to be conscious of and intentional about,” she said. “We need to be aware of how we are investing in our younger generation to prepare them for future tribal leadership. I think that’s something that the CPN has done really well since 2003 through the (Potawatomi Leadership Program). Some other tribes have similar programs, but that is one way that I see the CPN promoting Native control of education.”
In addition to her new board position, Zientek now co-chairs the NIEA Native education systems committee and serves on the fiscal and membership committees. Her experience allocating the education department’s budget and Tribal scholarships gives her a firm grasp on bookkeeping for a larger institution. She felt the two committees go hand-in-hand as the membership dues allow the organization to hold conferences and additional opportunities for tribes to teach each other and collaborate.
“To me, it’s incredibly important to highlight the best practices of the people and organizations and tribes who are doing the good work of regaining that control. And then also providing technical assistance and help to those people and organizations and tribes who are just starting out, trying to figure out, ‘Well, how can we assert our tribal sovereignty via education?’” she said.
While giving back remains her focus, Zientek also looks forward to expanding her awareness and connections during her four-year term.
“I’m most excited, I think, about just learning from my fellow board members,” she said. “There’s just such a wealth of knowledge there that it’s like almost like an embarrassment of riches, and I just feel honored to listen to them speak and learn from them.”
American Civil Liberties Union
In October, Zientek also accepted a position on the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma board. She said the organization’s values align with her own, and she felt that the time had come to heighten her involvement.
“Personally, as an Indigenous woman, there are a lot of civil liberties that we received relatively recently in history. So it’s just important to me that we have an organization like ACLU monitoring any attacks on those freedoms and making sure that they’re protected,” Zientek said, including immigration rights, first amendment rights and social justice.
“These are things I care about, and ACLU, one, gives me an opportunity to be educated and informed and involved. And then, two, they’re an organization that I trust to give me nonpartisan and clear positions on issues. And I think that that strengthens my position as an advocate and ally,” she said.
Though these new roles bring additional responsibilities into her life, Zientek attributes her ability to accomplish her goals to the strength she receives from others who see her potential.
“For both of (these positions), it was totally because there were strong Indigenous women that encouraged and supported me to run, or else I wouldn’t have even considered it,” she said.
Find more about the CPN Department of Education at cpn.news/education. Visit the National Indian Education Association online at niea.org and the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma at acluok.org.