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Student petition effort leads to renaming of Menominee school

Menominee Indian High School will be Menominee Nation High School beginning in fall school year

Students led an effort to remove the word ‘Indian’ from the name of the predominantly Native American high school. Royalbroil (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A predominantly Native American high school will have a new name next year after students led a two-year effort for the change.

Menominee Indian High School will become Menominee Nation High School when the district’s newly built high school building opens in the fall. 

The school in Keshena is on the Menominee Indian Reservation. The district had 991 students enrolled this school year, and 870 of them were Native American, according to state data

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In 2022, the school’s human rights club discussed the history of the term “Indian” for Native Americans. It is believed to derive from the mistaken view of 15th century explorer Christopher Columbus, who landed in the Americas believing he was in India. To the students, the term is simply inaccurate, and the club’s members decided to create a petition to change the name.

Two of the students involved, Miklo Guzman and Francis Dodge, were both sophomores at the time. They are now finishing their junior year of high school. They were part of the effort to gather support for the change.

“Indian” is not widely considered to be a slur, and Native Americans hold a range of opinions about the term. Guzman said that was true even within his family.

“My great-great grandma … told me she had no issue with ‘Indian,’ that she grew up with it,” Guzman said. “But my youngest grandma, she told me that she hated ‘Indian,’ that she grew up knowing what it meant, where it came from. She knew that ‘Indian’ wasn’t our name.”

Students collected 180 signatures within the school and presented the petition to the school board. Guzman said he was intimidated.

“I felt like I was going to say the wrong things (or) that they wouldn’t agree with us,” he said. “But surprisingly, the school board was with us 100 percent.”

But the board assigned the students more work. They would have to get buy-in from the tribal government, and survey the broader community for their input on the name.

That process took much longer than the initial petition, and the students would return to the school board several more times. But this year the Menominee Indian School Board voted unanimously to enact the change. The new name will apply to the high school only, not the district’s other schools nor its official name.

The human rights club’s adviser, Megan Willard, said the students’ initial conversations came after the district inherited “Bittersweet Winds,” a museum exhibit assembled by activist Richie Plass showing depictions of Native Americans, including many racist caricatures. After Plass died in 2020, the district inherited the exhibit, and the superintendent asked Willard to identify students who could be involved with maintaining it. She identified Guzman, Dodge and a third student named Colt Denney. 

A blue water tower with "Keshena" written on it can be seen on a snowy day.
A water tower in Keshena, Wis., stands behind residential homes in the area Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023. Angela Major/WPR

By seeing through the name change effort, Willard said the students exceeded all expectations.

“When you have students take an issue like this so seriously at such a young age, it gives you hope,” Willard said. “I can’t be more proud of the kids in the club for saying yes and showing up.”

Guzman and Dodge said they both feel a sense of accomplishment following the name change.

“It was like leaving a footprint, leaving something behind that everybody can experience and take in,” Dodge said.

“I love knowing I’m doing something to change the history,” Guzman said.

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