Paige Willett participated in the Potawatomi Leadership Program in 2010. She now works in the Public Information Department writing for the Hownikan, our monthly Tribal newspaper, and the Hownikan Podcast.
To subscribe to the Hownikan, email firstname.lastname@example.org
We decided to interview Paige to learn more about what her experience in the program was like, now looking back on it 12 years later. Many PLP have chosen to come back and work for the Tribe later on in life. It is incredible to see the long lasting effects of this program.
Question: Was the program what you expected it to be before coming?
My mom grew up here, and she graduated from Shawnee High School in the seventies. I didn’t really have much connection with the tribe, despite reading the Hownikan. My mom was always very proud to tell us that we were Potawatomi and that we were enrolled and about my great great grandmother, but I just hadn’t really explored much. She always got the paper and everything that I write for now, which is pretty cool. And she saw the ads for the Potawatomi Leadership Program and she was like “hey, you should really apply for this” and I saw it and she pushed me more and I did. I don’t think I really knew what to expect going into it, what six weeks was going to be like here as I hadn’t done anything that intensive of an experience with the tribe. It was more intense than I expected, doing so much every single day and learning everything, but it was definitely a good intense. I loved the whole program and I learned so much about everything. The T_ribe has grown so much since I’ve done the program. It’s really cool being back here now and getting to tell everyone else about all the growth that’s going on.
Question: How did you get started working for the Tribe?
As a result of the program I had met the previous Public Info director and got to know him. He has unfortunately walked on now but he was good to me. He was only one person but he was the whole department at that point. I did some freelance stuff for the paper and some photography. Since I had done that stuff before, Jennifer knew my name. She was looking for someone to help grow the department again. Under her, the department has experienced so much crazy growth and that has been really amazing. Media output from the tribe has grown 100 fold and it’s so much better now thanks to her and all the visions that she’s had for what we can do as a department. She knew that I had a journalism degree and had been writing and broadcasting, and I went through the interview process and got hired.
Question: What is it like coming back and working for the Tribe after doing the program?
Coming back around has been really cool. I like interviewing other people who have done the program before to see what is going on in their lives and what they are working on. A lot of PLP are doing such incredible things every year. It is a group of standout, smart, and highly motivated people. I’ve interviewed PLP who do a wide variety of things; law, art, and environmental jobs. I like talking to and spending time with the new group that gets here in the summer. Everyone is so different in their interests and personality, and especially going to the presentation at the end and seeing things that are amazing and make you go ‘wow we need to do this pronto!’
It is neat going from not really knowing that much to coming full circle and spending everyday here. I advocate through writing and word for us everyday, and letting Tribal members know every day what’s going on and the opportunities we have at the Tribe and services that are available. Helping people get in contact with people when they don’t know who to get in contact with, and pointing people in the right direction can make a really big difference. Talking about programs like PLP and what it is and informing them that it’s something that their kids and grandkids should do. I want to teach them something that I wouldn’t have known before coming here.
Question: Has the program influenced the way you practice Potawatomi traditions?
110%. I’m here everyday, I go to drum with the ladies every week because it’s something that I really want to do, I go to ceremonies when I can. I’ve gone to language classes when I can and I go to winter stories each year. I try to connect to other Potawatomi women because it’s important for me, and getting to meet Potawatomi across the country, getting to know them and talk to them about their lives is something I really love about this job and writing for the paper. Creating stories and letting everyone else know about the amazing things they are doing. Personally, I think it all matters.
Question: What is the most valuable thing you learned?
It’s really just learning to claim your identity for yourself and not for anybody else.
Question: Do you think the program is a good representation of the Tribe as a whole?
I think the program does a really good job of exposing you to everything. It’s something that the creators of the program tried to do because it attracts students from everywhere. It’s like ‘hey, you’re here, you’re going to learn as much as you can.’ It attracts so many people from all over and different backgrounds.
Question: What is your favorite memory?
Making friends with each other. As much hard work as you do, it’s a lot of fun. Meeting a bunch of people your age and being stuck in a house together. Being named was a really really big thing, it was an incredible experience. I bawled like a baby. It’s not like anything you’ve experienced before and it’s not something that you will really get to experience again. You’ll be a part of other naming ceremonies but you’ll never be named again.
Question: Do you keep in contact with people from the program?
We’re all spread out over the country. We talk when we can, we’re all 30 now and a lot of them have kids and we all live different places and have careers. One of us lives in Japan, another lives in DC and is an LGBTQ+ activist. We try to keep in contact, but it’s cool just knowing what they are up to.
Question: Do you have any advice for people interested in doing the program?
Just do it, take the chance. A lot of people who are out of state worry about spending time in Oklahoma. Just come here. Many people get to Oklahoma and the tribe and it’s not what they think it is. It’s so much bigger and deeper and it covers so much of a wider area than they really think is possible.