Sign the Petition to change the name here: https://bit.ly/2FlFsjR[Trigger Warning: detailed account of a massacre.]
I am a proud graduate of Henry Sibley High School in northern Dakota County, or at least I thought I was. Growing up in Mendota Heights, you are surrounded by Henry Sibley’s name. Highway 13, or Sibley Memorial Highway, goes through the town of Mendota, where Sibley lived for most of his life in Minnesota. In high school, “Onward Sibley” was the school song, and “Go Warriors” was the incessant chant.
To be fair, nobody really knew anything about him, other than that he lived a long time ago and was a governor or something. When I was attending Sibley High in the 1990s, we even had an Indian head as our mascot, ironed onto the fronts of the red leather letter jackets. (Not an athlete myself, I never had one.) Sibley’s name and the Indian head were on most signs and omnipresent at pep rallies. We were the “Sibley Warriors.”
It wasn’t until junior year, AP Economics class, that one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Reed, mentioned the 1862 Dakota Conflict for the first time. Honestly, I’d never heard of it. Mr. Reed said something about Dakota Indians and an infamous execution and used his excellent chalkboard skills to make the point — completely off-topic for Economics — that maybe an Indian head shouldn’t be the school’s mascot.
Thankfully, as awareness of Sibley’s role the 1862 conflict grew during the 2000s, Sibley High finally changed its mascot in 1999 to a more Greek-style warrior, though according to one report, “students still wore war paint and feathers during football games.”
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Minnesota’s early history and the Dakota people who lived on this land for thousands of years before white settler colonialism arrived. Researching my current project, a history of Saint Paul, I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of that early history, wonderful books like mni sota makoce, North Country, and the biographies of Henry Sibley and Little Crow. More importantly, I’ve read through a pair of indigenous Dakota books, What Does Justice Look Like and Our History is the Future, both of which deal with the horrific history of white settlers in Minnesota.
I am aware that these books do not make me an expert on Dakota history, and there is still so much to learn about the Dakota people and the Dakota homeland where I live. I think white Minnesotans and people who live in the Twin Cities have a lot of work to do to learn about our past, and how to make a better future that respects the Dakota people and the genocide that occurred here.
But even with my basic research, it’s easy to question Sibley’s role in Minnesota history and whether or not Minnesota, Dakota County, State Highway 13, or School District 197 should be naming things after him. To me at least, the case is pretty clear that white Minnesotans need to re-think our Sibley memorials.
|[The Sibley house in Mendota.]|
Henry Sibley’s Early Years
The short biography: Sibley moved to Minnesota from Michigan in 1834, at the age of 23 to take a job with the American Fur Company. From the tiny trading post at Mendota, Sibley worked intimately with the Dakota tribes for about two decades, trading goods and relying the Dakota for furs. Fur traders relied / exploiting Indian labor to make profits in the fur trade, but certainly by the 1840s, it was a declining industry. Nevertheless, Sibley cultivated close ties with the Dakota who had been living in the Minnesota and Mississippi and River valleys for millennia. At one point, during the winter of 1839, Sibley even went on a months-long hunting expedition with his Dakota allies, making relationships he was able to use to benefit his trade. During this time, he fathered a child with a Dakota woman; he later placed her with a family in Saint Paul and took care of her education. As Minnesota rapidly changed and American and European settlers arrived, Sibley would go on to be a key figure in catalyzing the white colonization of Minnesota/Dakota homeland, negotiating territorial status and becoming its first state governor.
If you are honest about Minnesota’s dark 19th century history, there are lot of villains. In fact, it’s almost impossible to find white Minnesotans who behaved with any moral decency during this time. Even someone like Bishop Henry Whipple, often lauded as one of the “good” white settlers, does not come off very well in his dealing with the Dakota people (as Mary Lethert Wingerd points out in her epic history). This is to say that it can be tempting to treat Henry Sibley with kid gloves, especially if you went to a high school named after him. And to be honest, I entered my research feeling somewhat charitable towards him.
|[Middle aged Sibley.]|
After all, he was better than a lot of his peers! He was better to the Dakota and Winnebago people than Alexander Ramsey, for example, who was worse in just about every way. Reading through his biography and letters, that’s my sense of how Sibley viewed himself too, occupying a supposed middle ground between genocide and so-called “savagery”.
But at the same time, Sibley’s betrayal of the Dakota people might have been worse. Sure he was not explicitly genocidal from the beginning, but he knew far more about what he was doing and personally carried out the destructive plans of others. The fact that Sibley had been close with many Dakota for years does not make his betrayal much better; in fact, it might even make it worse.
At best, Sibley's intimacy and kinship with Dakota people gave him a “conscience” of a sort, and for a while Sibley pushed politically for solutions to western settler colonialism that might have been mutually beneficial to both the Dakota and his fur company. For example, he advocated briefly in 1841 to create a Dakota-only Indian territory that would have theoretically made all land west of the Mississippi permanently off limits to white settlement. The plan failed largely due to an election that saw Sibley’s fur trade allies in Washington lose position there.
Years later, in 1850, after negotiating an agreement that made Minnesota and the Dakota homeland into a territory, Sibley had what I see as his best, most defensible historical moment. He gave a prescient speech to Congress where he correctly called out US Government’s failure to treat Dakota and Indian people with respect and fairness, and predicted a bloody future.
As described in Rhoda Gilman’s biography, here’s what Sibley said to Congress about “the choice facing the country”: he declaring that the choice was “civilization of the remaining Indian people or their utter extermination.” Sibley stated that “[history would in time] do justice to the heroic bands, who have struggled so fiercely to preserve their lands and the graves of their fathers from the grasping hand of the white man…”
He continued: “If the act of making a treaty is not to be looked upon as a mere mockery or a farce, every stipulation and every pledge made… should be scrupulously fulfilled … On the contrary,… the commissioners, by making promises which they know will never be performed, plume themselves upon having made a favorable treaty, leaving the poor victims to find out in due time that they have been betrayed and deceived…. I will venture the assertion that not one in ten of the treaties will be found to be have been carried out in good faith.”
Finally, he warned Congress: “If anything is to be done, it must be done now…. Your pioneers are encircling the last home of the red man as with a wall of fire. Their encroachments are perceptible in the restlessness… of the powerful band who inhabit your remote western plains. You must approach these with terms of conciliation and of real friendship or you must very soon suffer the consequences of a bloody and remorseless Indian war… What is to become of [them]… when the buffalo and other game on which they now depend for sustenance are exhausted? Think you they will lie down and die without a struggle?” (all from Gilman, 119).
But talk is cheap. Sibley’s speech was Cassandra-like, yes, but it was also little more than hot air expelled into the halls of Congress, worthless without action. It mostly had the effect of alleviating Sibley’s conscience. In the end, no matter how conciliatory or close Sibley was with Dakota people in his early years, his speech would up foretelling his own fate. His later actions make him a clear key player in all of the events that would prove fatal to the Dakota.
Here’s what happened next, and in my opinion, the four biggest reasons Henry Sibley should not be commemorated in Minnesota, Dakota County, or School District 197.
1. Bribery and Manipulation around the Treaties of 1851
It wasn’t long after he gave his speech to congress that Sibley was back in Minnesota, trying to bribe and manipulate the Dakota tribes out of their ancestral homeland. Sibley played key roles in the notorious treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota, both of which were dishonest manipulations of the relationship between Dakota people, new white settler Minnesotans, and the US government. In particular, Sibley used his influence as a trader and supplier of goods to cajole Dakota leaders by creating massive debts. He then ensured that he and his white partners got huge shares of the future annuity payments.
Here’s a description of Sibley’s actions leading up to 1851, meant to build up pressure to force the Dakota to cede their lands:
While Sibley had been pushing austerity in the [Indian] trade for years, urging his traders to end the practice of handing out presents end even credits, he now reversed these orders… [Sibley’s fur trade partner, Martin] McLeod began dispensing goods on a liberal scale near Lake Traverse… Most attention was given to the lower Indians, or the Mdewakantons and Wahpekutes. Sibley opened his store near St. Paul to them, handing out credits and presents on a large scale… These tactics succeeded, as Henry Sibley’s brother Fred reported that Cheifs Wakute, Grey Iron, and Shakopee were considered to be safe on the treaty issue.(Anderson 55)
For Sibley, the point was to build up enough good will and consequent debt that it would force the Dakota to sign away their homelands.
The other big point was that Sibley personally made bank, and his financial fortunes transformed from insolvency to riches. According to Waziyatawin, Dakota professor and activist, Sibley got a huge portion of the eventual treaty payments:
Henry Hasting Sibley was paid $66,459 in one lump sum. This was in addition to the 10 percent he deducted from the Wahpekute fund for acting as “attorney” in the treaty of Mendota… In addition Sibley’s company took in $105,618,54, split between Sibley, Dousman, McLeod, and Ramsey Crooks. (Waziyatawin 34; Anderson cited, 67.)
The treaty annuities got his company out of debt, allowed him to invest in the territory’s rampant speculation and transportation schemes, and made him a wealthy man.
2. Led the military effort to wipe out Dakota people
|[Sibley liked to be remembered as a military general.]|
Years later, after never receiving payments or promised shipments of food from the U.S. government, and unable to hunt, fish, or gather food on their former homelands while confined to a tiny reservation —cut in half again in 1858 -- the Dakota people were starving. Some began to fight for food and land and killed many settlers in the Minnesota River valley. Most of the other white settlers fled in terror while calling for revenge against the Dakota. In response, Sibley agreed to lead a state militia against the Dakota under the condition that he have full control over the military mission.
Heading west with some untrained troops and facing continual calls for genocide from hysterical white Minnesotans, Sibley bought into the fervor, writing his wife, of the Dakota:
Oh, the fiends, the devils in human shape! My heart is hardened against them beyond any touch of mercy.
He later wrote to Governor Alexander Ramsey that “he would fire upon a flag of truce: 'the day for compromise of any kind has passed.'” (Anderson 174). Leading 1,200 troops west, Sibley vowed that “if any [Dakota] shall escape extinction, the wretched remnant must be driven beyond our borders.”
He later turned down peace negotiations with Taoyateduta (or Little Crow), his long-time interlocutor, and the leader of the closest Dakota tribe to Saint Paul, after Taoyateduta sued for peace, writing to Sibley: “I want to know from you as a friend what way that I can make peace for my people…” However, according to Anderson, Sibley “had no intention of negotiating in good faith with Little Crow and admitted as much in reports sent east.” (Anderson 156)
In the end, Taoyateduta was smarter than to trust Sibley with a truce, but after being badly outnumbered, fled from the conflict.
3. Oversaw kangaroo court military trials
|[The hanging at Mankato.]|
After the surrender of the bulk of the Dakota people, thousands of men women and children, Sibley held and oversaw an illegal military trial. As one historian described, the technical nature of the death sentences was highly dubious:
While the state military command had some reservations about the legality of trying Indians, or civilians, by a military tribunal and there was even a basic question of whether Sibley, as the commander in the field, had the right to organize the court, Sibley felt sure that he had acted properly and intended to execute the guilty en masse. (Anderson 164)
In theory, from Sibley’s perspective, any attempt at “justice” would have been worse if Sibley had brought the Dakota people back to Saint Paul. But Sibley's trials were also a farce:
On some days, several dozen men appeared in court. Although the Dakotas did not realize it at the time, their simple admission to being at one of the battles and firing a gun constituted evidence of guilt. The vast majority of Indians so judged received the death penalty. (Anderson 164)
What's more, Sibley personally exaggerated the claims of terror and even rape, insisting for years afterward that “then and later Sibley stated his belief that most of the [white] women had been repeatedly raped." The charges proved to be largely false, and Sibley knew it. As Gilman again describes: “he admitted to Sarah, however, that not every one of them had suffered. Several reported that they had been treated kindly, and one had preferred her Indian captor to her white husband…” (Gilman 183)
Sibley personally approved the death sentences of over 300 Dakota men who were captured in the mix of Dakota people in Western Minnesota, and Sibley had initially wanted to hang the Dakota on the spot. Thankfully someone persuaded him not to, as the US Government later decided that the military tribunals had been a sham.
By one account:
Washington officials, however, demanded to see the trial transcripts and soon discovered major flaws. Minnesota politicians had claimed on the floors of Congress that Dakota men had raped every white captive woman; the evidence, on the other hand, showed that only two had been assaulted. In addition, many Indians argued that they had been compelled to go to the various battles by the soldiers’ lodge and that they fought unwillingly, hurting no one. When it came to determining which Indians had actually killed civilians, only in a few cases could eyewitnesses be produced to verify such charges. (Anderson 165)
Though President Lincoln changed most of the sentences, 38 Dakota were hanged and killed by the US government at Mankato that December. From the beginning, Sibley was right in the middle of it.
4. Participated in the Punitive Expeditions, a second military effort to wipe out the Dakota people
|[The concentration camp at Fort Snelling.]|
It did not end there. After the mass execution, and the deadly removal of the Dakota survivors from their concentration camp at Fort Snelling, Henry Sibley re-upped with the Minnesota military for what has become known as “the punitive expeditions.” Sibley himself led half of the force of thousands into Dakota territory (today’s North and South Dakota) to hunt down Dakota tribes. Sibley’s force marched for months, destroying the food and shelter of the fleeing Dakota people, and driving them west over the Missouri River.
The other force was led by Alfred Sully, a military officer who took the another large group of soldiers through Dakota territory. Sully’s force also hunted down Dakota people and families that had fled west, burning food and supplies, and killing Dakota when they found them. The worst of it all was the massacre at Whitestone Hill, when Sully’s force came upon a group of 4,000 Dakota and Lakota families. Here’s a horrific description of what happened next, as told to professor and activist Nick Estes, by LaDonna Bravebull Allard:
As my great-great-grandmother Mary Big Moccasin told the story, the attack came the day after the big hunt, when spirits were high. The sun was setting and everyone was sharing an evening meal when Sully’s soldiers surrounded the camp on Whitestone Hill. In the chaos that ensued, people tied their children to the horses and dogs and fled. Mary was 9 years old. As she ran, she was shot in the hip and went down. She laid there until morning, when a soldier found her. As he loaded her into the wagon, she heard her relatives moaning and crying on the battlefield. (Estes 104)
400 Dakota and Lakota were killed, and according to Estes, “the dogs returned to camp with babies still tied to them, where they were shot by the soldiers.” Sully’s men also “destroyed half a million pounds of dried buffalo meat and razed more than 300 lodges,” which was a death sentence of its own for Dakota people with nothing to eat.
While Sully’s and not Sibley’s forces committed the massacre, by some accounts Sibley regretted the lost opportunity. As Gilman writes, “without a massacre to his credit, the General [Sibley] again faced abuse from his political foes” (Anderson 201). It seems to me that, even if he oversaw the first march after the outbreak of violence, Sibley did not have to participate in this second, far worse humanitarian travesty.
In short: not good
Henry Sibley spoke Dakota, called some Dakota people his kin for a while, and, compared to most territorial Minnesotans, understood a lot about their culture. So did he have a guilty conscience? Did he know what he was doing?
To me, these questions become irrelevant. Sibley’s actions speak louder than any of his words.
I am still learning about this story and have a long way to go. These sources reflect just a tiny fraction of the perspectives on what happened in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the 19th century. White people who inherited this history, myself very much included, have a lot of work to do to understand and reconcile ourselves with our past.
But as a Henry Sibley Warrior, class of ’97, I am certain it’s time to stop naming things after leaders with blood on their hands. To this day, the kids who are attending Henry Sibley High School, walking the hallways, call themselves “warriors”, chanting Sibley’s name, and I would bet that almost all of them are ignorant of the real meaning of those words. Our kids deserve a better legacy and, as a first step, changing the name of our high school seems like the very least we can do.
Sign the Petition to change the name here: https://bit.ly/2FlFsjR