Two students awarded new scholarship for students of Native American heritage

By Alicia Lee

Two students from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO) have received the first-ever Illinois Heritage Scholarship, a full-tuition transfer scholarship awarded to students of Native American heritage for up to six semesters of study.

The scholarship, announced in February, is the product of a collaboration between the Peoria Tribe of Indians and the University.

PJ Attocknie, 34, from Quapaw, Oklahoma, is one of the students who was awarded the scholarship. Although he has already earned two degrees, one in Native American Studies and the other in business administration, from NEO, he hopes the University’s online Earth, Society and Environmental Sustainability program will help him obtain a career in tribal leadership.

“Being Native American means a lot to me,” Attocknie said. “I want to help tribal members accomplish anything they want to accomplish, educational-wise or whatever they feel they need to go out and get. This (program) will help me understand the environmental world and help me apply it to what they need.”

Attocknie has lived in Quapaw all his life. He graduated from Quapaw High School in 1999.

“I tried college at NEO right after that, and then I tried going to NSU, but I didn’t want to do this college life with school work anymore, so I just came back home and worked,” Attocknie said.

However, after his oldest son entered into his life, his direction in life changed.

“My oldest son … started high school and had a little trouble with his work,” Attocknie said. “I was kind of wanting to go back to school, so when he started to get into trouble, I started school again at NEO to show him that if I can do this, then he can do it. I was working, going to his games, doing online classes and still getting decent grades. It showed him that he can go out and do all this stuff as well.”

Attocknie works full-time as a security officer at Downstream Casino, raises five children, coaches football and will soon be taking classes online.

“I’ve had my hands full,” Attocknie said. 

Yet when this scholarship presented itself, he took advantage of it.

“I just filled it out not really knowing what this scholarship was. Now this opportunity’s here, and I just have to finish; go get it!”

Kolton Kitterman, 19, from Oologah, Oklahoma, is the other scholarship recipient. He will transfer as a sophomore into the Kinesiology program at the University. He plans to use his degree to become a physical therapist.

Although he is transferring to the University, he said his time at NEO was life-changing. 

“It was amazing at NEO. I was actually the mascot and became a cheerleader as well. My coaches and teammates are sad to see me leave, but they know that it’s a great opportunity for me and they’re excited for me at the same time,” Kitterman said. 

Kitterman, like Attocknie, wants to give back to his community through this opportunity.

“There’s so much to being a Native American. My family is really involved with it. One of my great, great grandparents was on the Trail of Tears and was one of the first Indians to lead a tribe across the Trail of Tears without an army escort. So it means quite a bit to me,” Kitterman said.

He hopes to be a role model for younger Native Americans. 

“It’s true that Native Americans can do a lot more than what people think. Many people think that Native Americans are just on reservations, but we’re just as intelligent as any other race or ethnicity,” he said. “I want to be able to show (Native Americans) that if you work hard and put yourself out there, anything’s possible.”

ajlee12@dailyillini.com