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Tonight the ISD 197 school board voted to move forward with a process to change the name of Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights. The unanimous vote is just a first step. The next step is for the administration to develop a process for proposing and approving a new name for the school. There is no current timeline for when the school will have a new name.
“Like many of you, I’ve been uncomfortable for years with the name of our high school,” said Board Member Stephanie Levine. “But I’ve believed a name change should not be imposed by the school board but should be a grassroots effort led by the community.”
The school board talked about the flood of input they received from the community, which supported the name change roughly 10 to one. Superintendent Peter Olson-Skog also expressed support for changing the name.
“We’re not trying to erase history, this is an opportunity to enhance history,” said Board Member Byron Schwab. “If we’re not looking at how we can improve, we’re not going anywhere.”
In addition to the name change, the mascot and logo could potentially change as well.
Process of Change
Last week we reported that the vote was coming after the urging of a group of current and former students, local residents, and members of the Dakota communities of Minnesota. They argued in an online petition, “While Henry Sibley is an important figure in Minnesota history, his actions against the Dakota people demonstrate a character unsuitable to honor with the name of our school.”
Sibley, the first governor of Minnesota, played a key role in the 1862 conflict with the Dakota. Local writer and Sibley alum Bill Lindeke wrote a detailed history examining Henry Sibley and sharing his opinion supporting the name change. Both the City Pages and the Star Tribune recently covered the potential name change this fall as the debate continued.
The issue came up for discussion at the November 16, 2020 school board meeting when the board heard a presentation from Kevin Maijala and Dr. Kate Beane from the Minnesota Historical Society and the district’s American Indian Liaison Allicia Waukau Butler on the perspectives she gathered from the district’s American Indian families (begins at about 5:46 in the online video).
The school board looked to their policy for naming facilities, which states that if a building is named for a person, they need to demonstrate good character and have made significant contributions or achievements. This was the deciding factor for board members.
“Even by the standards of his day, [Sibley] exhibited poor character,” said Levine.
Previous Changes and Pushback
The school has debated the name, mascot, and logo in the past, opting to keep the mascot name after a student vote in 1988 but dropping the Native American head logo in 1996 after support from the student council. A griffin briefly became the new logo before being replaced with the current knight mascot in 1999. The change prompted pushback in 2005 when a group organized a protest and made T-shirts featuring the former Native American head logo.
In a statement, the school board at the time cited a 1988 Minnesota State Board of Education resolution denouncing the use of any mascots or symbols that disparage the ethnic heritage of American Indians and said , “Any high school with an American Indian logo is teaching students how to stereotype a group of people on the basis of race, religion, ancestry and cultural ethnicity.”
The district has had a school named for Henry Sibley since 1887. The current school is the third iteration, founded in 1954.
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