Citizen Potawatomi Nation Electrical Director Reflects on Heritage, Community Growth

November 9, 2021

This story, to help commemorate National Native American Heritage Month, is courtesy of Justin David Whitecotton, Electrical Director, Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN) – Oklahoma.

I grew up in Shawnee, OK, the oldest child of David and Margie Whitecotton.  I began working with my father and uncle’s electrical business, Cotton Electric, when I was 10.  I enjoyed getting to work with my family and learning the ins and outs of the electrical trade.  As a young man I continued to hone my craft working in the electrical industry in Seattle, WA, the Tulsa metro area, then finally returning to Shawnee where I currently serve as Electrical director for CPN. 

From a young age, I spent time every summer with my grandparents Janet and Bill Whitecotton.  I loved hearing my grandma share about her childhood and experiences growing up in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.  She would share stories about her family and heritage and the struggles she had growing up in a predominantly white school.  My grandma always taught me to be proud of my Indian heritage and to honor my ancestors.  Growing up in Shawnee, some of my favorite memories include attending the annual Citizen Potawatomi Nation festival.  It was an opportunity to highlight and celebrate our culture and to spend time with all our tribal family. I always loved history and spent a great deal of time learning about the history of our world and country.  Although our people have experienced great loss and hardship, the bravery and leadership of our elders as well as the unity of our tribal families, allow us to grow and prosper. 

Since working for CPN, I have been most proud of all the support we provide not only for our CPN citizens, but also to all our surrounding communities.  We have built facilities that allow safe places for all our community citizens to enjoy.  We have provided our citizens opportunities to easily receive COVID vaccines, we install generators and power restoration during storms and are always willing to be on site and ready to help whenever there are any issues. 

“Public Power.”

As an electrician I see this and immediately think of all the work we have been doing through the years working with neighboring cities and the [Grand River Dam Authority] to create an electrical grid that will support not just our citizens, but the entire state.  We believe in efficiency, and in my time with the tribe have found ways to utilize clean energy.  We will always need electricity and understand, we must continue to seek out renewable sources to protect our earth.  Our continued partnerships with other electrical utilities will not only be good for our citizens, but ultimately our environment. 

My advice for young people is to get educated. Whether it’s at a university, vocational school or job training, learning a trade can provide a fulfilling career.

Citizen Potawatomi Nation: Our Heritage, Our Future

The story of the Potawatomi stretches back to times lost to history, beginning on the East Coast of what is now North America. By the time Europeans arrived, the Great Migration of prophecy was complete and the tribes were living around the Great Lakes, with a social structure that included a strong communal lifestyle.

Early European contact brought fur trade and a short-lived time of prosperity for the Potawatomi people. The first account of the Potawatomi people was by Samuel de Champlain, a French explorer traveling the Great Lakes in 1615.

Years of warfare between colonizers further escalated tensions between the tribes of the Great Lakes, their Indian neighbors and settlers, because European colonial forces pressured native communities to choose sides. The Potawatomi were signatories to more treaties with the United States than any other tribe. Despite signing more than 40 treaties during this time, the period between 1700 and 1900 was a time of conflict and removal for the Potawatomi people. Between war and forced removal these years were a dark time for Potawatomi people and culture.

The scattered Potawatomi settlements were consolidated onto one reservation in northeast Kansas as a result of an 1846 treaty. From 1847 to 1861 the Potawatomi in Kansas managed to survive as a people, but they did not thrive. Tribal members largely adapted to a sedentary lifestyle, but they did not assimilate to the degree desired by the federal government.

On Nov. 15, 1861, eight designated “chiefs” and more than 70 other members of the Potawatomi Nation met with federal agents to sign a treaty that would forever alter their community’s relationship with other Potawatomi and the U.S. government. The 1861 treaty initiated the process for acquiring fee-simple land allotments and U.S. citizenship for almost two-thirds of its members. This group, which became known as the Citizen Potawatomi, was among the first tribes to enter into a treaty agreement that included both conditions.

The provisions for the Citizen Potawatomi’s move to Indian Territory were stipulated in a treaty signed on February 27, 1867. In 1869, a party of Citizen Potawatomi traveled to Indian Territory and selected a tract of land that became the site of the Citizen Potawatomi reservation. They chose a section of land that encompassed 576,000 acres between the north and south forks of the Canadian River. The land lay just west of the Seminole reservation and had an eastern boundary at the Indian Meridian. The earliest families to make the journey to their new reserve arrived in Indian Territory in 1872.

On August 16, 2007, the voters of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation overwhelmingly ratified a new constitution, expanding legislative representation to its approximately 20,000 members outside Oklahoma, where 10,000 Citizen Potawatomi live. Since then, CPN’s Nation operates the business of the tribal government on through a clear division of powers between the executive, legislative and judicial branches.