How Middle Schoolers Forced Their Administration to Stop Celebrating Indigenous Genocide

Students say their school should not be named after Alexander Ramsey, a historical figure who called for the extermination of Native Americans.

Sarah Lahm June 26, 2017

Middle schoolers in the midst of the campaign to rename their school. (Instagram / Justice Page Middle School)

Crowds in New Orleans cheered recent­ly when a hand­ful of noto­ri­ous Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments were pur­pose­ful­ly top­pled. New Orleans may­or, Mitch Lan­drieu, gained noto­ri­ety of his own for speak­ing out in favor of the removal of stat­ues of Robert E. Lee and Jef­fer­son Davis, among oth­ers. In sup­port, Lan­drieu told a South Car­oli­na news­pa­per that such mon­u­ments were not intend­ed to be his­toric or edu­ca­tion­al mark­ers,” but were instead built in cel­e­bra­tion of” slav­ery and segregation.

Students have not only confronted the ugliness surrounding Alexander Ramsey’s actions, they have also led a campaign to rename their school after Alan Page, Minnesota’s first African-American Supreme Court justice.

Hun­dreds of miles away, at the oth­er end of the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er, Min­neapo­lis res­i­dents have been grap­pling with a trau­mat­ic his­to­ry of their own: the lit­tle-acknowl­edged geno­cide of the area’s Native peo­ple, waged to ush­er in white set­tlers in the mid­dle of the nine­teenth century.

In ear­ly May of 2017, the Min­neapo­lis park board vot­ed unan­i­mous­ly to restore Lake Cal­houn, one of the city’s most promi­nent lakes, to its orig­i­nal, Dako­ta name: Bde Maka Ska. Sup­port­ers of this name change have point­ed out that Lake Cal­houn was named after the ear­ly U.S. politi­cian John C. Cal­houn — a fer­vent defend­er of both slav­ery and Pres­i­dent Andrew Jackson’s Indi­an Removal Act.

Now, stu­dents at the city’s Ram­sey Mid­dle School have scored anoth­er vic­to­ry: They have suc­cess­ful­ly lob­bied to have their school’s name changed. Ram­sey, built in 1931, was named after Alexan­der Ram­sey, one of Minnesota’s first gov­er­nors. Gen­er­a­tions of school chil­dren have been taught to revere Ram­sey as a fron­tier states­man who helped launch Min­neso­ta. But the dark­er side of Ramsey’s actions are now also taught to stu­dents begin­ning in sixth grade, when they learn that the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure also led the push to erad­i­cate Native Amer­i­cans from the state he was try­ing to build.

Along with anoth­er much-laud­ed ear­ly Min­nesotan, Hen­ry Sib­ley, Ram­sey was a cen­tral archi­tect of fraud­u­lent treaties with the Dako­ta tribes who had roamed freely over south­ern Min­neso­ta long before set­tlers arrived. When fac­tions of the Dako­ta resist­ed the star­va­tion and dev­as­ta­tion they were fac­ing, thanks to unkept promis­es and the encroach­ment of set­tlers, Ram­sey report­ed­ly stat­ed in 1862 that they must be exter­mi­nat­ed or for­ev­er dri­ven from the bor­ders of the state.” This led to the Unit­ed States-Dako­ta War of 1862, which end­ed with the hang­ing of 38 Dako­ta war­riors – an act that still stands as the largest mass exe­cu­tion in U.S. history.

Through­out this school year, Ram­sey stu­dents have not only con­front­ed the ugli­ness sur­round­ing Alexan­der Ramsey’s actions, they have also led a cam­paign to rename their school after Alan Page, Minnesota’s first African-Amer­i­can Supreme Court jus­tice. Through an Insta­gram account, com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings and sur­veys, the stu­dents and their sup­port­ers pressed the Min­neapo­lis school board to pass a res­o­lu­tion per­mit­ting the name change.

On June 13, at the final board meet­ing of the school year, they got their wish. Dis­trict Super­in­ten­dent Ed Graff, along with the nine board mem­bers, voiced approval for the change, cit­ing both broad com­mu­ni­ty sup­port for the move as well as an acknowl­edge­ment that the major­i­ty of the school com­mu­ni­ty believes that a school name should be inspi­ra­tional and wel­com­ing to all stu­dents.” Jus­tice Page Mid­dle School will now stand on a leafy hill in south Min­neapo­lis, close to the lake that will once again be known as Bde Maka Ska.

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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