Henry Sibley High School in Mendota Heights will now be called Two Rivers, following a vote by the West Saint Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area School Board on June 21. The vote followed a year-long process to change the name due to its affiliation with Minnesota’s first governor, whose legacy has come under increased scrutiny.
A High School Name Committee of students, staff, parents, alumni and the general public was tasked with bringing at least two names to the board with 75 percent or more support from committee members. West Heights and Two Rivers were its top choices. It also presented a third option, Hillside, to the board because it too had considerable support, particularly among students.
Over the last several months, the committee sorted through more than 800 possible names submitted by the public. It settled on five options, including those three and two based on words in the Dakota language—Mni Sota and Ohoda. A public survey of the five options drew just under 4,200 responses between May 25 and June 11.
Two Rivers was chosen as the school’s new name by the School Board on a 5-1 vote. The name was also among the top picks in the public survey, though not as popular as West Heights. The chosen name refers to the high school’s proximity to the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers.
Board member John Chandler voted against the motion, citing a lack of opportunity for the public to provide more input on the top names. “I can’t in good faith vote for any of the names,” Chandler said.
He was initially against the name change altogether. However, Chandler ultimately sided with the board’s unanimous decision in December to seek a change. He contended that his initial hesitance was because he felt the process did not appear to offer robust public input during the pandemic when students, families and faculty were in the thick of distance learning.
“A lot of people had no idea we were going to vote for (the name change),” Chandler said.
“Obviously we’re going to teach history. That doesn’t mean you honor (Henry Sibley) with the name of the high school,” said School Board chair
An online petition, which as of June 29 had garnered just over 700 signatures, cropped up shortly after the board’s vote to adopt the Two Rivers name. Some comments on the petition reflected distaste for the name altogether. Others stated the process did not consider enough voices. Still others wished the name selected would have been simpler, like Mendota Heights High School. The petition can be found at tinyurl.com/ptt3bbzh.
Many on the petition site also believed the process was done too hastily. Board chair Joanne Mansur disagreed with that notion. She said that in her 10 years on the School Board the topic of nixing Sibley’s name has come up regularly. She added that the process for changing the school’s name was as lengthy as it needed to be.
“Six months isn’t rushing. A year isn’t rushing,” Mansur said. “It’s time to vote.”
She later said she felt the district did its due diligence with public outreach. She added that she felt the board’s public meetings had been more, not less, accessible to the public, given the remote nature of them.
Mansur said she believed much of the backlash surrounding the new name was because some people believed the move was an effort to “erase history.”
“Obviously we’re going to teach history. That doesn’t mean you honor (Henry Sibley) with the name of the high school,” Mansur said.
The legacy of Henry Hastings Sibley, who served as Minnesota’s first governor from 1858-1860, has come under increased criticism over his treatment of Minnesota’s American Indian population following the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. After the conflict, Sibley played a key role in the mass hanging of 38 Dakota men in Mankato, which remains the largest mass execution in the country’s history.
Last June, the District 197 School Board heard concerns that Sibley’s name violated the district’s own naming policy, which states that those after whom schools are named should demonstrate “good character.”
— Casey Ek
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