Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights is named for the state of Minnesota’s first governor.
But his role in the U.S.-Dakota War and the country’s largest mass execution has prompted the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school district to reconsider the building’s name.
Concerns about having a school named for Henry Sibley have trickled in to the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school board for years but increased this summer and fall, according to school board members. The board decided Monday to gather feedback from its American Indian families and historians for further discussion of whether the name needs to be changed.
The move to reconsider the moniker comes amid broader debate about changing the names of buildings and landmarks that recognize historical figures with checkered pasts. What was once Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis is now Bde Maka Ska, recognizing the Dakota name for the lake instead of John C. Calhoun, a supporter of slavery. In October, the Minneapolis school board voted to create an advisory committee to consider the district’s school building names.
West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Board Member Brenda Corbett said at an earlier meeting that she supported getting more information before deciding what to do about Henry Sibley High’s name.
“I think we are at a unique time in history that provides an opportunity for there to be insightful conversations about whom we should honor with these names,” she said.
Sibley, whose Mendota home is a state historical site, was tapped to command troops in the U.S.-Dakota War. He established the military commission that in 1862 sentenced 303 Dakota men to death. Thirty-eight of them were hanged in Mankato.
The school district’s American Indian liaison will collect feedback from American Indian students and parents and will present the information at the board’s next meeting on Nov. 16. Staff from the Minnesota Historical Society will also make presentations about Sibley’s life at that meeting.
The school board’s two student representatives said Monday that the topic has not come up among their peers, though both supported more education about Sibley in the school and community.
The Minneapolis school board on Oct. 13 approved a resolution to establish an advisory committee to research and provide recommendations on any district facilities that should be renamed. The committee will include the board’s student representatives along with nine members, one appointed by each board member and the superintendent. The group will be seated in January and provide the recommendations by August 2021.
“I think this is a really important thing,” said Jenny Arneson, vice chairwoman of the board. “Unfortunately, school names have become politicized, and I think it’s an unreasonable burden we are placing on schools to navigate that.”
In 2018, the site council of Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis twice postponed a vote on changing the school’s name. A group of students and staff had objected to the association with Patrick Henry — a Revolutionary War-era political leader and a slave owner. Another group of school alumni opposed the change, citing history and the cost to the district and families.
Alexander Ramsey’s name was in 2017 erased from a south Minneapolis school over his call to drive American Indians out of Minnesota. The school was renamed for Justice Alan Page, Minnesota’s first Black state Supreme Court justice.
Minneapolis school board member Kimberly Caprini said there is still strong support to change the name of Patrick Henry High, but the site council in 2018 didn’t have enough information.
“Now that we have this committee, it’ll take some of that pressure off the school to put that whole proposal together,” she said.