MANKATO, Minn. — A U.S. Civil War era colonel in charge of the Minnesota militia in the U.S. Dakota War stands trial himself now where he once oversaw the hanging of 38 Native Americans.
Sibley Park, in Mankato, Minnesota was named after Henry Hastings Sibley, Minnesota's first governor who eventually became a general and who set up a fur trading post in the southern Minnesota city.
But he also oversaw the largest mass execution in U.S. history after Native Americans were hanged for alleged crimes in the U.S.-Dakota War.
The resurrection of racist issues with the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis spurred a college professor to raise the issue of removing Sibley's name from the park. Those efforts seem to be gaining momentum.
A community group of 15 is trying to raise awareness about the harm done by Sibley to Dakota people and continue the conversation about Sibley’s legacy in Mankato.
Jameel Haque is the unofficial face of the movement. The director of the Kessel Peace Institute and history professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, began these efforts earlier this year.
He felt motivated to do something after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and working to change the name of Sibley Park seemed like a way to make Mankato a more welcoming community.
Haque has been speaking to local groups during the past month to make a case for why the park should be renamed.
Haque plans to bring a proposal to the City Council, potentially next year. He has done four virtual presentations and his most recent one had about 20 people attend.
Sibley has a mixed legacy. He was a fur trader and the first governor of Minnesota. He also played a prominent role in the signing of a treaty that misled the Dakota about how much payment they’d receive in exchange for their land.
The treaty sparked events such as the delayed shipment of food and supplies to the Dakota that led up to the U.S.-Dakota War more than a decade later.
Sibley commanded troops during the war and afterward oversaw rushed mass trials of 392 Dakota. Some trials lasted only five minutes and the Dakota men were not allowed lawyers or witnesses.
The trials resulted in 303 men being sentenced to death. After President Abraham Lincoln and his government reviewed the cases, 38 Dakota men were hanged.
Sibley Park, home today to a farm-themed playground and the annual Kiwanis Holiday Lights event, was the site of a prison camp for the Dakota men awaiting a mass trial following the war.
Advocates for renaming the park say changing the name of the park is a step toward reconciliation for the damage done to Dakota people by Sibley.
“Renaming the park will help people know that we as a town have a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion,” Haque said. He hopes changing the park’s name will make Mankato a more welcoming community.
There is pushback from people who criticize the movement of applying 21st century standards to actions by a man more than 150 years ago.
They worry changing the name of the park is an attempt to rewrite history, which Haque disagrees with.
Some oppose the renaming and argue the name should stay because Sibley was a prominent political figure during the beginning of Minnesota statehood.
Curtis Dahlin, a self-described independent historian, thinks the renaming effort highlights an incomplete picture of who Sibley was. To Dahlin, Sibley helped protect Dakota people from angry white settlers while they were held in prison camps and he prevented more deaths.
He thinks it is inaccurate to only show Sibley in a negative light.
Haque said he’s surprised by how much pushback the movement has received. He has seen people criticize the movement on Facebook and has received letters disagreeing with his efforts.
“History is a conglomeration of stories society tells itself to reveal what it prioritizes in the past and how it wants to move forward in the future,” he said in a virtual presentation to community members.
“History is a mirror of what we value now. Do we value Sibley’s role as the mediocre first governor of Minnesota over his role in the Dakota War?”