I was recently contacted by a former colleague on the ISD 197 School Board (I was on the board for eight years ending 2015), asking my thoughts about changing the name of Henry Sibley High School. Lacking specific information, my first response was “here we go with another tearing down of history in the name of political correctness.” I do believe that in some cases the drive to subject historical figures to purity tests has gone too far. (Washington owned slaves; should we rename the Washington monument?) If every person we as a culture choose to honor with a statue or building name must be pure as the driven snow, we would be left with no options. (OK, maybe Jesus High School.)
That said, prompted by the question, I studied up a bit, and I can see why people think Sibley flunks the character test because of his actions during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, in particular the “trials” and subsequent hanging of prisoners. That was an egregious example of what was sadly an all-too-common pattern as the United States became what it is today. The blunt fact is that Europeans and then we Americans stole this country from the natives and then exploited its resources by exploiting slaves and then after slavery officially ended we continued to exploit black and brown people. And that’s still happening.
American history (for that matter the entirety of human history) is replete with awful actions by all-too-human people. American history is also full of progress and achievements of which we should be proud. The fact that our history is tainted doesn’t mean we should automatically “cancel” those who not only may have contributed to the taint but also contributed to the progress and positive achievements.
From what I read, Sibley was a conflicted guy. He was deeply critical of U.S. Indian policy, and put significant effort into lobbying for a treaty that would have created an Indian territory and state in what is now southern Minnesota, and when in Congress he argued for the preservation of Indian land from “the grasping hand of the white man.” That doesn’t excuse his actions in 1862, but in the tide of history he both enabled it and tried to buck it. In my view he displayed both character strengths and faults.
So … do I think the high school should be renamed?
On one hand I fear we are throwing the historical baby out with the bath water, if I may mangle the metaphor. I’m not sure what level of purity is required of our historical figures and I think we will be culturally poorer by applying a “no blemishes” test.
On the other hand, our national history is veined with ugliness with which we are only recently starting to come to terms. After centuries of sweeping it under the rug we need to acknowledge the taint, and renaming the school can be one step in raising awareness in service of the ultimate goal: a more just society that attempts to counter the cultural and economic damage done over many generations.
On balance, I support changing the name.
Mark Spurr, West St. Paul
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