Name change discussed for Ramsey Middle School

Building currently named after Alexander Ramsey, a controversial figure in Minnesota history

Ramsey Middle School teachers Paul Sommers and Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl lead an event about potentially renaming the school. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

Ramsey Middle School students, parents and community members weighed the possibility of renaming the school on Thursday.

About 125 people met in the auditorium, hearing a student presentation about the school’s namesake, Alexander Ramsey, before breaking into small groups for discussion.

Ramsey was the first governor of the Minnesota Territory and second governor of the state. He gained notoriety for his role in exiling thousands of Native Americans from Minnesota and his role in the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862.

“We want a name to represent who we are as a school,” said eighth-grader Olivia Bordon, one of the students behind the push. “I don’t think Alexander Ramsey is a person who deserves honor.”

Many in attendance appeared to feel that way. An informal survey after the event found that a majority of attendees thought the name should be changed.

Broken treaties, war

Ramsey was appointed governor of the Minnesota Territory in 1849. He teamed up with the territory’s congressional representative, Henry Sibley, to negotiate treaties with the Dakota in 1851, forcing them to cede almost all their land in Minnesota and eastern Dakota.

“He knew that his political future depended on his ability to open up lands west of Mississippi for settlement,” said Christine Herbaly, who manages the Alexander Ramsey House in St. Paul.

The U.S. government paid only a fraction of the agreed-upon money in exchange for 35 million acres of land. The treaty also called for reservations on both the north and south sides of the Minnesota River, a provision the U.S. Senate later eliminated.

Ramsey was later investigated and acquitted by Congress on allegations of fraud connected to the 1851 negotiations, during which traders pressured and threatened the Dakota with military force. He became governor of Minnesota in 1860.

By 1862, the Dakota had lost most of their land in Minnesota and were dependent on government treaty payments for survival. Four Dakota hunters killed five white settlers on Aug. 17, 1862, and several tribes decided to wage war on the whites, a six-week conflict that resulted in more than 600 deaths.

Ramsey declared in a September address to the Minnesota Legislature “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”

Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in the aftermath of the war, and about 2,000 Dakota were forced from the state. That included about 1,700 Dakota people, mostly women and children, who were forced to march from the Minnesota River Valley to Fort Snelling, where they spent the winter. It is estimated that between 102 and 300 people died in the camp, mostly due to outbreaks of measles and other diseases.

“There was deaths from sun up to sun down according to the oral history,” said Dakota elder Chris Mato Nunpa, whose grandmother was killed during the march.

Ramsey’s government began offering bounties for Dakota scalps following the war. American forces also began punitive expeditions in the war’s aftermath, eventually forcing the Dakota onto reservations outside of Minnesota.

“Those were genocidal actions,” Mato Nunpa said, “the way they just slaughtered hundreds and hundreds of people.”

Annual push

Ramsey Middle School students learn Minnesota history, including the 1862 war, in sixth grade. Each year, a discussion emerges about renaming the school, said former history teacher Kara Cisco.

“There’s always students that feel both ways,” she said.

This year, the push to rename Ramsey started at the beginning of the year, with students creating an Instagram account to advocate for the change. A group of students presented information on Alexander Ramsey during the school’s Native American Family Involvement Day assembly, and some began writing letters in support of the change.

Paul Sommers, the teacher leading Thursday’s event along with Elissa Cedarleaf Dahl, said the goal of the event was to deepen the community’s understanding about the school’s name. He said afterward that he was “stunned by the growth of the students awareness in their power in collective voice as the conversations continued through the night.”

Costly process

Minneapolis Board of Education policy requires board approval for all buildings and facilities in the district. The policy requires include input from the school community. Site council recommendations must include information on how the site plans on providing appropriate signage and paying for any changes in current signage.

A change requires a two-thirds majority of site council members and superintendent approval before a School Board decision.

The board has changed the names of buildings three times in recent memory, all of which involved instances of schools merging to a two-campus model.

Director of Policy Development Nan Miller wrote in an email that costs go beyond simply changing signage. The district makes reports and keeps records based on existing names of schools, she wrote, and it would be costly to change those records.

Community members weighed some of those positive and negative consequences in their small-group discussions on Thursday. They noted a new name could create a more welcoming environment and better represent the school’s values. They also noted that a name change could create a false sense of accomplishment and complacency and could be a sensitive topic for families with a long history at Ramsey.

Most students in attendance appeared to be for the change, saying that Alexander Ramsey doesn’t represent the school’s values and that a rename could inspire change on a broader scale.

“We’re not going to try to erase the history of the school,” said Bordon, the eighth-grader. “We just want a new name, but it’d still be the same school.”