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Infusing American Indian Studies Throughout the Year: One Teacher's Story

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Mike Mestelle, from the Lakeland Union School District, has taught for 31 years, the last 29 at Lakeland Union High School. He teaches history courses, including Native American history. Mestelle has worked diligently to authentically infuse histories, including Native American history, into curricula throughout the year.

A hallmark of many history teachers, he answered interview questions with stories. His first story was how he almost did not become a teacher. “I started college to be a business major,” Mestelle said. “My mom and dad were teachers in Ashland, and my dad told me not to be a teacher just before we got into the car” -- a car they borrowed, as the family car would not make the whole trip.

Business did not agree with Mestelle, and this, combined with his love of athletics and his parents’ teaching backgrounds, steered him in the direction his dad told him to avoid, although his dad was proud of him for following in their footsteps.

When Mestelle first started teaching history, he focused on infusing different topics based on historical and cultural recognition months and themes, such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Native American Heritage Month. When a student once asked him “when we would go back to ‘regular’ history,” he knew something needed to change.

He quickly found ways to infuse Native American history and contemporary events into history curricula through several methods. First, Metelle reads the newspaper. Something as efficient as sharing the story of the president-elect recently nominating Rep. Deb Haaland as head of the U.S. Department of the Interior, making her the first Native American Cabinet secretary, shows Native Americans are contemporary people while opening the door to break down important historical topics.

Mestelle also includes Native American stories often left out of history books. He recounted the story of Mitchell Red Cloud, a Ho-Chunk soldier killed in battle during the Korean War, after holding off an attack to allow the rest of his unit to get to safety. “This story is important,” Mestelle said. “Learning about the war and about Native American people being heroes. Native American people actually serve in the military at a higher percentage.”

Finally, adding history and context appropriately in coursework has a lasting impact. When teaching about termination and relocation policies during the 1950s, and how harmful they were for Native people, Mestelle ties it to modern-day. The Menominee tribe that was terminated in Wisconsin caused difficult relationships with state government; however, the Menomonie are known for their sustainable forestry. Their hardwoods are so high-quality that they have been used for NCAA basketball courts.

Another area Mestelle ties into the modern-day stems from the very area he teaches in. “The biggest part of our teaching in freshmen history is about treaty rights. In the 1970s and 80s, the spearfishing protests happened,” he said. While he was not there when things were really difficult, the school was a hotbed of protesting and threats. “We read the treaties about hunting, fishing, and gathering rights; hatcheries, and preserving the resource,” he said. “It’s the most important topic because it has impacts on how people treat each other today.” He notes there is still a lack of understanding of treaty rights at times.

Mestelle emphasizes the power of language in the classroom. He gets ideas from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission newsletter and calendar publications. “Did you know the word for reservation, in Ojibwe, means ‘leftover’?” He said. “That sparks discussion about land, about areas kept as reservations.” Words are also about nature: the leaves changing colors or ice forming, and Native American students can be the experts to talk about language and culture.

For teachers working to more authentically infuse American Indian history, languages, cultures, tribal sovereignty, or current events, Mestelle says, “Pick one topic. Start with one thing where it fits authentically. Do it one time, and then look for other places where Native American issues and topics really fit. Reach out to local people or reservations -- develop relationships.” Mestelle has spent time on the Lac Du Flambeau Reservation. He has met many people, asked questions, and received help with several projects. “They could see I was genuine and wanted to reciprocate and say thank you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” is his advice.