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Henry Sibley, 'pretty bad guy,' may lose his namesake high school

Henry Sibley High School was named for a white settler with a, putting it politely, questionable legacy. Some alumni think the school can do better.

Henry Sibley High School was named for a white settler with a, putting it politely, questionable legacy. Some alumni think the school can do better. School District 197 website

Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights was founded in 1954. The man it was named for, Henry Hastings Sibley, settled in our state over a hundred years earlier. If you ask a current high schooler who he was, a lot of them would probably struggle to answer.

“A lot of students are for sure not aware where the name comes from or what he did,” student school board rep Itzel Cervantes Cardoso said during a virtual meeting last week.

David Skadron, a fellow student rep, had at least a little more context from some cursory background info taught in class –  specifically regarding Sibley's dealings with Native folks. Enough to confidently say:

“He was a pretty bad guy.”

For the past few months, an increasing number of Henry Sibley High School parents and alumni have been trying to change the name of their alma mater, with several letters and petitions addressed to the school board. This one in particular got 800 signatures in the first dozen days after being published. 

Attention: Please share re: Henry Sibley High School name change effort. Please message me to access petition link...

Posted by Shannon Giizhik on Saturday, September 12, 2020

Bethany Williams, a 1997 alum who now lives outside of Chicago, is one of the organizers leading the effort. When she was going to school in the '90s, the mascot, the Warriors, still used a stylized depiction of a Native American's head for the logo. 

"Most of us went to Henry Sibley, but didn't learn too much about him," she says. "Everything we heard about the dark side of him came after we graduated." 

After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in Minneapolis, Williams and her cohort decided it was time to ask their old high school to do better. They’re not the first people to do so by a long shot, according to board chair Joanne Mansur’s comments last Monday.

“I’ve been getting contacted about this for at least the past few years, at least a couple of times a year, by community members,” she said. “It isn’t a new question.”

But 2020 has pushed to the fore a lot of simmering issues about who our state – and our nation – choose to honor, and the harm they’ve inflicted upon people who are still disenfranchised today. The Sibley debate mirrors a recent one at Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis. Elsewhere, people are yanking down statues of Christopher Columbus, and restoring the original indigenous names to areas white settlers appropriated for their own use. (See “Fort Snelling at Bdote” and “Bde Maka Ska” for more details.)

It's probably Sibley’s relative obscurity that has protected him thus far from the same scrutiny levied at figures like Columbus or Calhoun. So who was he, really?

As a young man, Sibley moved to Minnesota from Michigan (1834), took a job at a small fur trading post, and worked personally and intimately with the Dakota people for the next two decades. He hunted with them. Traded with them. Fathered a child with a Dakota woman (whom he placed with a St. Paul family). Spoke out about Congress’s obligation to actually honor the treaties it made with Native tribes.

Because of this close relationship with the area’s indigenous people, Sibley enjoys a vague distinction in Minnesota’s colonial history as one of the “good” white settlers, a crowd of lukewarm folks mostly known for not shooting Native people on sight.

A blog by Henry Sibley alumnus Bill Lindeke – who’s supporting the effort for a name change –  is quick to point out that this may be giving Sibley entirely too much credit.

“This is to say that it can be tempting to treat Henry Sibley with kid gloves, especially if you went to a high school named after him,” Lindeke writes. “And to be honest, I entered my research feeling somewhat charitable towards him.”

That is not how he feels now.

Even after working closely with Dakota people and living in their ancestral homeland, Sibley proceeded to manipulate them into giving up their land; led the effort to wipe them out when they, impoverished and starved for resources, began to fight back; and oversaw the farcical trials that led to over 300 Dakota men being sentenced to death.

He was only just persuaded not to hang them on the spot, and President Abraham Lincoln managed to lower the number to a still monstrous 38. 

Sibley’s legacy hinges on this dichotomy. He spoke Dakota, called some Dakota his kin, even had a relatively robust understanding of their culture. Did that make his eventual betrayal – his willingness to sacrifice them for wealth and power –  better, or worse?

Does it matter?

Does it mean he deserves to have a school named after him?

“Yeah, he’s not great,” board member Maureen Ramirez said at Monday’s meeting. “That’s maybe not really what we’re about as a community.”

The board has heard the community’s desire for a change, and they’re willing to look into it. What that process will look like and whether it will actually lead to a name change remains to be seen, to say nothing of whether the mascot name, “Warriors,” should be changed as well. The latter would also affect the middle school and the athletic program.

But for now, the board has voted to let the administration draw up a process to examine this, together, as a community: students, alumni, and staff. The subject will be revisited at a meeting in November.

Williams says she's honestly a little "disappointed" with the board's hesitancy to jump into action, and its tendency to deliberate the scope and nature of the discussion before it's even allowed to take place. But for her, the discussion, rather than the desired outcome, is the point.

"If I could snap my fingers and change the name overnight, I wouldn't," she says. People need to know who Sibley was and what he's done –  to see him as a person, albeit a problematic one, rather than just a name on a building.