ST. PAUL -- Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights will soon have a new name.
The West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area School Board voted Monday evening, Dec. 7, to drop the name of Minnesota’s first governor from the school, which serves more than 1,400 students from seven cities.
The unanimous vote followed months of lobbying by community members and alumni, who cited Sibley’s treatment of the state’s Dakota people in advocating the name change.
Superintendent Peter Olson-Skog reported that the district had been inundated by more than 200 emails on the issue from members of the public — who favored changing the name by a roughly 10-to-1 margin — since the board took it up about a month ago.
Board member Stephanie Levine, who moved approval of the resolution to rename Sibley High, said she has been uncomfortable with the school’s name for several years.
“I want to be clear that a name change in no way erases history, and students should continue to learn about the complex legacy of Henry Sibley and the Native inhabitants on whose land we now live,” Levine said. “His legacy should be studied and remembered, but not honored with the name of our high school.”
The resolution approved at Monday night’s virtual meeting directs the district’s administration to develop a process for bringing new names to the board for consideration, along with cost estimates and potential timelines. The name change may also include a new logo and mascot.
Board chairwoman Joanne Mansur said she hoped that the draft process would be presented to the board at one of its January meetings.
John Chandler was the only board member who expressed reservations about the resolution, saying that a survey conducted by Dakota County Commissioner Joe Atkins found that the name change had less support than emails to district officials suggested.
Chandler also noted that some in the community have communicated concerns to him that the board is “trying to sneak this through during the pandemic.”
Monday’s vote comes amid a reckoning over racial justice in the United States, sparked by the death of George Floyd earlier this year at the hands of Minneapolis police. Several school board members noted that this backdrop underscores the need to reconsider the legacy of Sibley High’s namesake.
Henry Hastings Sibley, who came to what is now Minnesota as a fur trader in 1834, became one of the territory’s leading businessmen and was elected Minnesota’s first governor when it achieved statehood in 1858. His home in Mendota, a state historic site, includes some of the oldest still-standing buildings in the state.
During the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, Sibley led troops against the Dakota in Minnesota and pursued them into neighboring states the following year on a series of “punitive expeditions,” according to the Dakota County Historical Society.
The school board’s policy stipulates that when naming a district facility after “prominent persons of regional, state or national repute,” the board must consider whether that person “demonstrates good character” and has “made significant contributions or achievements.”
At least one recent petition to change the name of Sibley High argued that Sibley flunked the character test, pointing to his participation in the campaign against the Dakota and his support for the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men at Mankato in December 1862.
“Henry Sibley was a complex man, and while his list of accomplishments is long, he clearly failed to demonstrate good character … even by the standards of his day,” Levine said of the man whose other Minnesota namesakes include a county, a street in downtown St. Paul and the city of Hastings.
During its Nov. 16 meeting, the board invited Kevin Maijala and Kate Beane from the Minnesota Historical Society to provide a historical perspective on Sibley, along with Allicia Waukau Butler, the district’s American Indian liaison, who shared perspectives she gathered from Native American students and their families.
Both of the school board’s non-voting student representatives, Itzel Cervantes Cardoso and David Skadron, expressed support for renaming the school at Monday’s meeting.
Cervantes Cardoso suggested the board place a plaque in the school to explain why the name was changed, and augment the district’s history curriculum to paint a fuller picture of figures like Sibley.
“I think it’s important that … we learn more about Henry Sibley, and that our students in the future have a better education about who he was so … the things that he did don’t happen again,” he said.