Students learn about influence, tribe through the Potawatomi Citizen Nation Leadership Program
The Citizen Potawatomi Nation Potawatomi Leadership Program brings together a cohort of eight to 10 young tribal members for a six-week summer internship designed to help students discover meaningful connections to their family and history.
During this time, they learn about CPN’s culture, governance, and business operations and develop leadership skills to carry them through their academic and professional lives.
This year’s PLP is scheduled for Friday, June 10, 2022 through Saturday, July 23, 2022. Applications are open through April 1, 2022 at plp.potawatomi.org.
PLP Advisor and Director of the Education Department, Tesia Zientek, sat down with the Hownikan to talk about how the program has evolved over its nearly 20-year history and what she expects most from the program. This year.
The Potawatomi Citizen Nation established the Potawatomi Leadership Program in 2003. Tribal affairs committee members realized the nation was awarding more tribal college scholarships than ever before; however, many of these fellows had little understanding of their tribe or its operations.
Zientek said this disconnect happened “through no fault of their own, (but) as a result of historical policies, geographic isolation, and efforts at assimilation.”
Nevertheless, it presented a cause for concern. Knowing that the future leaders of the tribe are drawn from the youth and that the vitality and sustainability of the nation depends on capable and committed leaders, the CPN launched the Potawatomi leadership program as an investment in the younger generation and l future of the tribe.
“Who will step into tribal leadership when this round of leadership ends?” Zientek asked. “And will these future leaders have the tools and knowledge about their tribe to succeed? …Are we doing what we need to prepare our next generation of leaders?
The PLP team works to improve the program each year, turning it into a solid and dynamic experience. The CPN Department of Education and tribal leaders select eight to 10 promising young tribal members for an immersive experience at tribal headquarters each summer.
Zientek said the program was quite long – around 10 to 12 weeks. The students were staying at St. Gregory’s University in nearby Shawnee, which closed in 2017. At that time, the program largely consisted of observing the various departments of tribal administration, as well as several cultural elements and opportunities for reflection.
Within a few years, CPN shortened the program to the six-week model that exists today to accommodate as many tribal members from across the country as possible without interfering with varying university schedules. The program has also moved to the Sharp House, a spacious CPN-owned property located near the powwow grounds and the Tribal Operations Center.
Staff focus on improving the program year after year. In order for students to have a deeper understanding of tribal governance and economic structures, the curriculum has been shaped around a number of elements. They spend time with Tribal Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett, Vice President Linda Capps, tribal legislators and CPN departments; visit tribal businesses; establish cultural links through language classes, ceremonies, traditional crafts and dance classes; and complete an intensive leadership training program designed to help them identify and hone their strengths, passions and skills.
Participation in the Potawatomi Leadership Program presents a unique opportunity to connect with the tribe. It allows for in-depth, hands-on experience of what it takes to keep the tribe functioning and moving forward, but it also provides students with the opportunity to connect with their peers.
Many students who participate in the program start out knowing little about their relationship to the tribe except that they are enrolled, Zientek said.
“The PLP gives them the opportunity to be around peers their age and really explore that. … We do a weekly talking circle where they can really unpack a lot of ideas and experiences (that they have) …so they’re really starting to understand that they are, in fact, Potawatomi,” she said.
Students learn about their family history and thus understand their connection to the tribe. Some even find they’re sitting next to cousins or relatives they’ve never met.
For Zientek, the most defining moments of her work with PLP were when she saw “a student coming in who really doesn’t understand what it means (to be Potawatomi) and where they fit in and (seeing them) leaving here on fire with their identity and calling home to share with their siblings and parents. Because many of them have wondered if they should claim that identity, and they are beginning to understand how they can l express in their daily lives.
PLP participants learn about their history and make their own contribution to the tribe and its future. PLP staff, as well as Tribal employees in departments and companies, learn from students through their interactions throughout the program.
“We ask them what they want to see the program do, what they want to see the Nation do. They have these conversations with leaders about what they want to see,” Zientek said.
Students also have a more formal impact on the tribe, working in pairs to design and present a practical project for the development of the tribe. Past projects have ranged from recycling programs to teaching materials to writing a Potawatomi drum song.
Whether the projects materialize quickly or not, Zientek said, everyone “sits behind the backs of the president and vice president and in the minds of lawmakers.”
Elders also continue to influence the tribe long after completing the program. Training future leaders of the CPN remains the central focus of the PLP, and the tribe sees years of development and investment pay off as elders return to work for the nation years later. Others influence their communities while still in college.
“There have been, my God, at least three students that I can think of off the top of my head who started Native American student associations at their university because there were none before,” Zientek said. . “There have been…students who have decided to go into a certain field of graduate study because they want to somehow give back to their field by helping Aboriginal people.
PLP advisors are selected from alumni, remunerating the investment the tribe has made in the cohorts that follow them. As an invaluable part of the PLP team, advisors always help transform the program for the better.
“They can tell us, ‘It’s like that on this side, and it’s working really well’ or ‘It’s not working.’ But I really think they don’t always get the recognition they deserve for shaping the program to be what it is,” Zientek said.
This year’s advisor is Braden Bruehl, an alumnus of the PLP class of 2021.
This year, Zientek is looking forward to holding the PLP in person again – something that hasn’t happened since 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Above all, she is thrilled to meet this year’s class and see their unique impacts on the program and on the tribe.
“What I want to see is them showing up, as Potawatomi, and helping us to keep growing,” she said.
Eligible applicants must be a registered CPN tribal member, between the ages of 18 and 20 on the program start date, and enrolled in a college or vocational school with at least a 3.0 GPA. Students from all over the world have participated in the program, from as far away as New Zealand and as close as Tecumseh, Oklahoma.
Applications must be submitted no later than Friday, April 1, 2022 at 5:00 p.m. CST. Learn more about the Potawatomi Leadership Program and apply at plp.potawatomi.org.
Note: This year’s PLP session is currently scheduled to be held in person at Tribal Headquarters from Friday, June 10 through Saturday, July 23, 2022. The PLP team is closely monitoring health concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic and reserves the right to switch to a virtual format. Without exception, accepted students must provide proof of full COVID-19 vaccination. If the format changes to virtual, program dates may also change.