Thumbs Up: Name Change Pondered for Ramsey Middle School

Alexander Ramsey (Wikimedia)
Alexander Ramsey (Wikimedia)

Minneapolis’ Ramsey Middle School is named for Alexander Ramsey, a controversial Minnesota Governor known for his role in the Dakota U.S. War of 1862, the exile of Dakota people from the state, and approving bounties for Dakota scalps. Students, staff and parents are discussing the possibility of renaming the school, according to an article in the Southwest Journal. (The Journal is a neighborhood newspaper covering Southwest Minneapolis. Disclosure: I used to write for the Journal.)

The reporter interviewed a student advancing the name-change idea:

“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.”

Part of Larger Debates

The Ramsey Middle School name-change debate is part of a broader conversation in the state.

For instance, in 2015, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board voted to restore the name Bde Maka Ska (Dakota for “White Earth Lake”) to Lake Calhoun. Bde Maka Ska was the lake’s original name, the name Dakota people say was given to it by the Creator.

Settlers renamed the lake after Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. It was an odd choice. Not only did Calhoun have nothing to do with Minneapolis but he was a strong advocate of the system of slavery, a dubious person to honor.

Today, signs around the lake use both “Calhoun” and “Bde Maka Ska.” (Change comes slowly; the Park Board’s website still only uses Lake Calhoun.)

Consider, too, the current debate about Minnesota State Capitol artwork. It touches on a similar questions: What people and names do we honor in this state and whose stories do we tell?

And this brings us back to Alexander Ramsey.

One of the controversial paintings in the State Capitol depicts the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux (1851).  Territorial Governor Ramsey played a pivotal role in negotiating that treaty, in which Dakota people negotiated under duress and ceded most of their land in return for promises of money and goods. It was a terribly unfair treaty. The federal government failed to keep its word. It led to starvation among the Dakota, which sparked the War of 1862.

Change comes slowly; efforts to remove the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux painting from the Capitol fell short, but it will be moved out of the Governor’s Reception Room to a less prominent location.

Student-Led Debate at Ramsey Middle School

The debate about renaming Ramsey Middle School, 1 W 49th St, has been coming up annually, according to the Southwest Journal story, and credit the public school curriculum for spurring the debate. Minneapolis students learn about the War of 1862 in sixth grade. According to the Journal:

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.

This education is not unique to Minneapolis. Working with Dakota leaders, Saint Paul Public Schools has developed lesson plans around Dakota sacred sites in the Twin Cities; they are phasing in a program where every fifth grader in the district will participate in a day-long field trip to learn this history. (For details, see our earlier blog.)

A Few Facts on Ramsey

  • Ramsey was a lead negotiator for the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, which was devastating to the Dakota and led to the War of 1862.
  • U.S. treaty negotiators had Dakota leaders sign a second piece of paper after the treaty signing. It was not explained to Dakota leaders, who thought it was just a second copy of the treaty they just signed. This paper allowed white traders to make claims against Dakota treaty money before it was dispersed. Of the initial $305,000 cash payment the Dakota were supposed to receive, they only got $60,000, less than 20 percent of the total, according to an NPR report.
  • The 1851 treaty granted strips of lands along the Minnesota River to the Dakota “in perpetuity.” The U.S. Senate unilaterally changed the treaty, replacing “in perpetuity” with “at the discretion of the President.” It was a provocative change. According to the website The U.S. Dakota War of 1862, Ramsey was charged with attaining the necessary signatures to finalize the treaties, “which he accomplishes through a combination of negotiation, withholding of goods and food, and the threat of military force.”
  • After the War of 1862 breaks out, Ramsey infamously declared to the Minnesota Legislature “the Sioux Indians of Minnesota must be exterminated or driven forever beyond the borders of the state.”
  • After the war, 303 Dakota are sentenced to death for their participation in the fighting following cursory trials. Ramsey urges Lincoln to hang all 303. Lincoln commutes most death sentences; still 38 are hung in Mankato, making it the largest mass execution in U.S. history. (No similar retribution was exacted on Southern soldiers after the Civil War. Just a few years after the Dakota-U.S. War, Lincoln says in his Second Inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
  • After the war, Ramsey (and others) authorized bounty payments for killing Dakota, according to an article written by Colette Routel, professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. First, Ramsey and Henry Swift issued orders creating a corps of volunteer scouts that would scour the “Big Woods” in search of Dakota men. They got a daily wage plus $25 per scalp. Later orders allowed individual citizens to get up to $200 for proof that they had killed a Dakota.

The Ramsey Middle School students raise a valid question: Is Ramsey still a person that we want to honor today by naming a school after him?

How about Ramsey County?

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