Smith-Cotton Junior High history teacher Michael Desmond, left, spent a month this summer doing archeological field work in Oklahoma with Dr. Leland Bement, right, an expert in Paleoindian culture and hunting technology.

Today marks the debut of a refocusing of former Democrat Editor Bob Satnan's column. Each week in "Slice of LIfe," he will tell someone's story — a story that typically wouldn't merit a headline but is at the heart of who the subject is or who they hope to become.

Michael Desmond had reached the end of one educational road, but his journey was far from over. The problem was he didn’t know which route he should take next.

Desmond found a path – and his passion – in the dirt of Oklahoma. He recently returned from nearly a month working tandem Native American archeological digs with one of the most respected experts in the field.

A seventh-grade history teacher at Smith-Cotton Junior High, Desmond completed his master’s degree in American History in May 2018 through Missouri State University.

“When you have a master’s in history, people think you’re an expert, but the reality is that you are specialized. I was specialized in colonial America, early United States history,” Desmond said. “When I am teaching my seventh graders about Native Americans, I was feeling like I was slighting them a little bit.”

Desmond has long had an interest in archeology, but he wasn’t certain if he needed to pursue another degree to get involved in the field.

“As much as you would think history and archeology would be related, they’re really not. They are separate entities almost,” he said.

In January, after consulting history professors at MSU, Desmond learned he needed to “get your hands in the dirt” by doing field work at an archeological dig site. Competition for dig crew spots is tough, and some digs require that the work be tied to course credit, which can run as high as $5,000. Through his MSU ties Desmond got connected with Dr. Leland Bement, an Oklahoma-based expert in Paleoindians who planned to work a pair of dig sites over the summer.

“The big thing for me was that it was over a topic I didn’t know much about,” said Desmond, who applied for and was accepted within a couple of days to work the Bull Creek Paleoindian Camp and Ravencroft bison kill area in the Oklahoma panhandle.

Bement has been alternately working these sites for decades; this summer was the first time he worked the sites at the same time to examine relationships between the two areas.

The crews camped in the yard of a farmhouse near Beaver, Okla., but they used the house to have meetings, get out of the heat and watch documentaries. They worked 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, and after the workday Bement and his teaching assistants continued the education process by showing the crew how to throw atlatls, assemble a bison skeleton in the garage and use ground-penetrating sonar.

“It was a lot more than digging in the dirt, that’s for sure,” said Desmond, who unearthed about 30 artifacts, including bone, hand tools made of quartzite, flakes from projectile points and possible post holes from a wind break. Next, Bement will do analysis and carbon dating on the more than 100 artifacts found at the sites this summer.

Desmond now is challenged with taking what he learned about the 11,000-year-old civilization back into his classroom.

“This summer is going to be hard, to sit down and make that presentable,” he said. “I’m not sure how I will make it exciting and relevant to seventh graders; it is going to be a process.”

A couple of summers ago, Desmond had a fellowship at Mt. Vernon, one of his historical dream destinations. That journey was another that fueled his desire for learning.

“It is important for people in the education field and in every walk of life to remain passionate about something. Passion is a hard thing to find,” he said.

Desmond is driven to use his summer experience to make his students’ path to learning more interesting.

“I felt like I was doing an injustice to my seventh graders when I was teaching Native American history when I didn’t know that much about it myself. I think this puts it into a completely different perspective,” he said. “Now I feel more well-versed than if I had a million degrees in the field.”

Contributing Columnist

Bob Satnan is a former editor of the Sedalia Democrat.

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