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'A great step': Native American community reacts to selection of 'Dakota' for new middle school name

The four-year graduation rate for American Indian students in Rochester in 2020 was 54.5% the statewide rate was only slightly better at 58.4%. Advocates say that is one of the substantive issues that needs to be improved.

Tucker Quetone pictured Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 at the Alternative Learning Center in Rochester. (Jordan Shearer | jshearer@postbulletin.com)
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Although there has been plenty of praise for the selection of “Dakota” as the name of the new middle school in Rochester, some voices within the American Indian community say there are more steps that need to be taken beyond that.

The word Dakota means “friend” or “ally.” The Rochester School Board selected it for inclusion on a shortlist of five student-nominated names out of hundreds. The public then selected it as the winning name through a voting process.

For some students walking through the doors of Dakota Middle School, the name may come across as a nod to history. For a handful of them, though, the name may mean a little more -- a recognition not just of the past, but the need to do better for American Indian students.

“It is a good thing,” said Guthrie Capossela, a member of the school district’s Native American Parent Advisory Committee. “I think what happens next is really the most important part of it and the learning that can happen from it.”

RELATED: Rochester School Board announces 'Dakota' as the name for the new middle school

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Capossela went on to speak about the disparities for Indian students and the need to improve the situation.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, there were 135 American Indian students in Rochester Public Schools in 2020. The Native American Parent Advisory Committee says there are more than 175.

The four-year graduation rate for American Indian students attending RPS in 2020 was 54.5%; the statewide rate was only slightly better at 58.4%.

"If you put the name 'Dakota' on the side of the wall, but then change nothing else about the way we teach our kids there, did we really do anything to represent Native people?" Capossela said. "Or did we just take a name and put it on a building and then make another white, institutional building?"

Those who have been in the Rochester School District long enough have been able to see a shift in the way American Indian issues are handled. Valerie Guimaraes got involved in the system when she noticed her own children bringing home stories from school that she disagreed with.

“She was told by a social studies teacher that the boarding schools were created for Native Americans to help us learn how to get along better with one another,” Guimaraes said of her daughter. “And that was most upsetting to me.”

Guimaraes began going into classrooms herself, offering to help teach students about Indian issues and culture. Today, she says the district’s relationship with those issues has changed 180 degrees from where it was 15 years ago.

The selection of a Native name for the new middle school, she says, is reason to celebrate.

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“With the naming of the school 'Dakota,' it gives me new hope: A hope for this community and hope for the future,” Guimaraes said. “I feel the time is right for this, so I am very, very, very happy."

Like Guimaraes, Tucker Quetone has been involved with Rochester Public Schools for many years. He started working for the district in the early 1990s, and his six children were educated in Rochester’s public schools.

He said the selection of Dakota as the name for the middle school is a “great step.” He cited several other steps he views as forward: How the district changed the name of the holiday from “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” and how the School Board has started reading a statement at its meetings, acknowledging that RPS sites are located on the ancestral land of the Dakota.

Like Capossela, though, Quetone said small acts can only accomplish so much in and of themselves.

“It’s a little bit of tokenism where they in word honor Native people but not much beyond that,” Quetone said. “So as a committee, we are really interested in moving things so that Native people -- native culture -- is seen more in the daily part of school.”

The committee, he said, would like more American Indian teachers in the school system, or even more simple things like having Indian artwork displayed on the walls.

“I would love to see when you walk into the school building that the atmosphere and the environment reflect the Dakota name,” Quetone said. “If that building existed, I would love to have my children attend there.”

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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