Local officials decline to support name change for Sibley State Park

It’s one thing for the proponents of cancel culture to get their way in erasing the names of urban historical landmarks like Lake Calhoun in the Twin Cities. But the uphill attempt to rename a popular state park near New London in Kandiyohi County shows it’s not so easy to rewrite history in other parts of the state.

Former DNR state naturalist Kelsey Olson started an online petition to garner support for renaming Sibley State Park, named after Minnesota’s first governor, Henry Sibley, because of his dealings with the Dakota people.

We believe that the state park is worthy of a name that reflects its natural beauty rather than be connected with this controversial actions of Henry Hastings Sibley in Minnesota’s history. We also believe that public places, including Sibley State Park, not be named after people who had/have racist actions and beliefs.

A state park name change takes an act of legislation. As a former park naturalist I am working to educate people on the historical truth of H.H.Sibley. By signing this petition you will add your voice to this effort which is not a local issue but a state issue for public lands and a national issue for justice. 

Olson’s petition has garnered about 750 supporters. But before long a competing petition posted by New London resident Jacob Kliedon opposing renaming the park popped up, attracting nearly 1,300 supporters for preserving the name as is.

I as a local resident think the park should stay named Sibley State Park. I have very fond memories of going there as a child. I also have a little bit of Indian Heritage in my family. Even with knowing that I still think it should stay the same name. Changing the name just because Henry Hastings Sibley was a “bad person”. He did a lot for this state he was also our first governor. 

The West Central Tribune included this brief bio of Henry Sibley in its coverage.

Sibley led the U.S. military force against the Dakota during the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. He brought Dakota women, children and elderly to what Olson described as a concentration camp at Fort Snelling following the war. In addition, Sibley wanted to see the more than 300 captured Dakota executed at war’s end. President Abraham Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38.

Sibley also served as the state’s first governor, and as the Minnesota territory’s representative in Congress. His military role was aimed at saving the lives of the early settlers. Somewhere between 400 to 800 settlers, children and women included, were killed at the start of hostilities, participants pointed out during the discussion.

Olson has held informational meetings in New London to make the case for rebranding the park. But media reports indicate a mixed reaction in the community that serves as the park’s gateway.

Olson said she favors a name change that better represents the park’s landscape. It could help attract visitors. There is precedent, she pointed out. The O.L. Kipp State Park near Winona was renamed as Great River Bluffs State Park for that reason.

But Roger Imdieke, a Kandiyohi County commissioner and business owner near the park, said he was concerned that changing the name would result in fewer visitors to the park. If it were named “Hickory Dale State Park,” for example, “you are going to lose people going to that park. They’ve never heard of it,” he said.

Sibley State Park has enjoyed some of its highest visitor numbers in the past six years, according to Colin Wright, a parks and trails supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He said he felt that if a discussion on whether or not to change the park’s name is to be held, it should be initiated by the Dakota within the state.

In fact, the park’s name can only be changed by approval of the state legislature. Nevertheless, Olson recently brought her campaign to New London elected officials in hopes of getting the ball rolling with a letter of support. But city councilors evidently wanted no part of it.

New London City Council members aren’t ready to put the city’s name on a request to change the name of Sibley State Park, but they support the conversation taking place about it.

“Something like this touches the emotions of people,” said Mayor John Bergman as City Council members took up the request for a name change at their meeting on Wednesday evening.

The mayor said the request has made this a great time for education about what happened to the Indigenous population and why it happened. He and other council members said they did not feel that the city was the best entity to host the conversation.

So for now, the name of the popular west central Minnesota getaway will remain the same as it’s been since 1919–Sibley State Park.