School club dedicated to human rights

Students caring for Bittersweet Winds exhibit, pushing for changing name of high school
Lee Pulaski
City Editor

Many school clubs focus on academics, arts and athletics, but there is one club at Menominee Indian High School with aspirations that go beyond what they learn inside the building.

MIHS has a human rights club that formed in 2021. It started when the school inherited the traveling display “Bittersweet Winds” from Richie Plass, a Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee who collected items that showed Native Americans in racist and stereotypical contexts.

Megan Willard, a civics teacher and the club’s adviser, said she was asked by administrators to see if there were any students interested in caring for the display and utilizing it to educate people as did Plass, who died in November 2020.

“Four students helped with that first setup at the casino. It was a regional meeting of all the superintendents, principals, athletic directors and assistant principals,” Willard said.

Club member Leo Kinney said seeing Bittersweet Winds woke him up to a lot of issues happening with Indigenous tribes, including the use of Native Americans as mascots, which still exist at a few Wisconsin schools today.

“There were so many things in the exhibit,” Kinney said. “It was kind of mind blowing.”

Club member Kaylee White also described her first impression of the exhibit as shocking.

“My first reaction was like, ‘Whoa.’ I’d never realized that this was happening,” White said.

While the exhibit was the main focus of the group in the beginning, the students soon realized there were other changes they could make in their school, the community and surrounding areas.

“We started a petition to remove the word ‘Indian’ from our name, because we’re Menominee Indian High School,” club member Colt Denny said.

The students gathered over 180 signatures and presented the petition to the Menominee Indian School Board, which was accepted. Now, the club is gathering input on what the new name for the school should be, according to Denny.

“We kind of wanted to ask the community how they feel, what their reaction is and if they wanted to suggest a name,” Denny said.

The name change does not currently impact the name of the school district or Menominee Indian Middle School, but White noted it’s something the human rights club might pursue in the future.

“I feel like that’s sort of an action we want to take,” she said.

Willard said she’s not aware of other schools that have human rights clubs, but there are human rights organizations in Minnesota that are willing to provide funding for school clubs that focus on equalization and fairness for all, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity.

Club member Francis Dodge believes there’s a lot that people off the reservation may not understand about Native Americans and their culture. He noted that long hair for boys and men is one of those things.

“I’m Native American, and this is important to me,” Dodge said. “It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our identity, our culture. It’s part of our spirituality. Hopefully, this is something we can pass down to the younger generation. We’re not going to be here forever. We’re going to pursue our own careers and do our own thing.”

Club member Ravena Arlequin said she doesn’t see upholding human rights as a career in adulthood, but she wants to do as much as she can to help future generations rise up.

“It’s kind of disappointing to see how we’re portrayed,” Arlequin said.

The club has sold T-shirts and concessions at sporting events, according to Willard. Students have also participated in a number of events and conferences addressing Native American issues where they learned about the obstacles other tribes are facing. One example is the Hopi Nation, which wants to keep its traditional homes, made from sand, clay and stone that keep the interior cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

White noted that many other tribes are experiencing what the Menominee are in terms of language and culture. She said that many tribes are looking to make such classes a requirement in their schools.

“Our culture is dying,” White said, noting that it’s important to care for human rights issues going on beyond the boundaries of the Menominee Reservation, too.

The club will be participating next spring in the Youth in Government program facilitated by the YMCA. The program includes arguing judicial cases before a mock supreme court and trying to pass bills in a mock congress. Willard said she hopes to make participation in Youth in Government an annual thing.

Willard said she believes any of the club members could easily pursue human rights in a variety of ways, whether it’s being an attorney or exposing human rights violations through art or music.

“They have lots of aspirations and lots of options open to them,” Willard said.