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The Missionary Retires

After nearly a century of controversy, Whitman has officially done away with its mascot. What is the meaning of this break from the past?

May 12, 2017

Whitman College decided last fall, after over a century, to “retire” its Missionary mascot once and for all. The decision is but a new chapter in the prolonged saga of Whitman’s efforts to grapple with a past that — as is the case of many American institutions — calls its very existence into ethical question. Even as the Missionary faded from the brand, it remained a direct and explicit reference to a history that, in the context of ideas that emerged into popular American consciousness only relatively recently, has come to be understood as offensive and fraught. It pulled tension on our present, weighed it down, a relic of a past with which the broad majority of those in the broader Whitman community no longer wish to identify.

Controversy has intermittently flared since the missionary mascot first came into use in the early 20th century, but only recently have the terms of the controversy become so explicitly political. Editorials and articles in The Pioneer and Alumni magazines through the decades offer an amusing array of testimonies to contemporary tensions. Most sound-off on the mascot’s alleged irrelevance or tameness.

Historical records indicated the name was first used in 1907, which was also when the school shed its religious affiliation. Prior to that, according to “The Triumph of Tradition,” Tom Edward’s early history of the school, earlier squads were known as “Whitmannites” or “Sons of Marcus.”

In a Feb. 27, 1925 edition of The Pio, many alumni voiced their disapproval over considerations to change the name to the more-imposing “Wildcats.”

One “prominent” athlete from the class of 1922 wondered mockingly whether “the student body feels that they are no longer worthy of [the Missionary] title … If they keep it they will have something to live up to … Why not change the name of the college while you are about it? … The name [Wildcats’] sounds to me as though the college had changed to a purely feminine institution of a type slightly different than the domesticated kitty.”

In 1947, one alumni wrote that the mascot was a “stimulus for disparaging remarks about the college.” For instance, “Preachers [or] the boys from the institute.” The Pio offered a cash prize for new name ideas.

In 1951, Marc, the notorious “Fighting Missionary,” was introduced in Waiilatpu, the yearbook–“keeping cheerful vigil over the fighting spirit of the College.”

The U-B struggled to fit the name into headlines. Wheaties and Bears were considered. ASWC held committees. In the late sixties, Tim Harris, a football player, proposed “Wheat Shockers” (one who stacks wheat), and Tim Marsh, the Whitman media director, shortened the name to Shockers in 1973 to publicize the soon-to-be-doomed football team (the name, reported The Pioneer, reached “the pinnacle of success” that year when Whitman ‘shocked’ Linfield 18-9. The symbol was a lighting bolt.

In 1987, we saw the spirit of the neoliberal times, when chemistry professor James Todd suggested that the name was misleading, which the school could ill-afford in the “competitive student recruitment market” (some incoming students were reported as inquiring about Whitman’s missionary program).

In 1988, one student chimed in that the school should change the name so that the “ski team can’t call themselves the squaw-fuckers anymore.”

In September of ‘97, the humor page of The Pio featured a fake column by then president Tom Cronin in which he banished the Missionary and asked for new suggestions: “So far, all of our suggestions–the Chiefs, the Redmen, the Homebound Kitchen Wenches–have been turned down by that ‘politically correct crowd.’”

In November of 1997, Whitman hosted a conference with the Whitman Mission National Historic Site entitled “Examining the Collision of Cultures in an Age of Multiculturalism. The Whitman tragedy: 1847-1997.“ The U-B published a lengthy special edition examining the fraught history.

In 2002, student Larry Dodd initiated an early listserve debate around the issue. Spanish Professor Celia Weller proposed Blue Mountaineer (gender neutral, according to the O.E.D.) and current molecular biology professor Dan Vernon suggested the “Fog” (Walla Walla weather and “many of us feel like we’re in one for much of the year”). Others mentioned changing definitions, specifically historical connotations. “Tradition is a wonderful thing, wrote alum Erik Jensen, “and it is still strong at Whitman. Nonetheless it must bow to changing times.”

In 2010, Whitman officially began using the now-ubiquitous clocktower and intertwined “WC” logos.

Spencer Janyk, in 2009, introduced a new kind of rhetoric to the fray (at least, insofar as the fray was represented by my incomplete research). His column, titled “Whitman has a genocidal name, state-of-being,” argues that Whitman, being a pedagogical agent of the “American Empire,” “perpetuates a colonial legacy” and is named after “agents of genocide.”

This largely became the language of the debate as, after the 2015 Power and Privilege Symposium, ASWC opened up (yet again) a committee to look into changing the mascot, and the Whitman administration locked in to the stride the following winter. This time, change won out. The Triumph over Tradition. Why, after over 100 years of fuss, was now the time? And, perhaps the more pressing question, as Environmental Studies professor Don Snow put it in recalling his own initial reaction to the debate: “Who gives a shit?”


Today, historians understand Marcus Whitman as a pious and earnest man who largely came to conceive of his missionary role not in terms of the successful religious conversion of the native peoples of the West (a task at which he, for a number of complex reasons, was a relative failure), but rather for his facilitation of the spread of white civilization. He wrote to his father-in-law, not long before his murder, that “I have no doubt our greatest work is to be to aid the white settlement of this country. The Indians have in no case obeyed the command to multiply and replenish the earth, and they cannot stand in the way of others doing so.”

During these first years of his mission at Waiilatpu, about ten miles west of Walla Walla on highway twelve, Whitman, a doctor, struggled with alleged Cayuse indiscipline (“Their being absent so much of the time is exceedingly trying to us,” complained Narcissa) , the death of his and Narcissa’s daughter (who knew the Cayuse language and represented a potent common ground between the mission and the natives), and infighting between other missions in the region. Increasing white settlement precipitated the murder in California of Elijah Hedding, the christened son of local chief Peo-peo-mox-mox. This and other events, including the measles outbreak for which Whitman was ultimately blamed, spelled his doom.

Early trappers in the west had little concern for the religious beliefs of the natives. Relationships were founded, in both directions, on pragmatism and curiosity. Alvin Josephy writes in The Nez Perce Indians and the Opening of the Northwest that only after a religious revival back home did the British Hudson Bay company, a major early 19th century trader in the region, have any obligation to “provide for the religious instruction of the natives within the territories it controlled.” A directive from the board to Governor Simpson wrote that “it wd (sic) be extremely impolitic to the present temper & disposition of the public in this country [Britain] to show any unwillingness to assist in such an object.”

But even such piety had a bottomline: Josephy writes that Simpson “reminded his factors and traders that the conversion of the natives might prove profitable to them, for it would place the Indians in greater need of white men’s goods, and thus increase the company’s profits.”

Insofar as Christian thought had actually caught on at all among the Nez Perce and other Northwestern tribes, it was “grafted” (Josephy’s word) onto deeply rooted customs and habits.

Marcus Whitman received approval to head west largely upon the grounds of a rumor that four Indians had ventured out to St. Louis, and talked to William Clark, then an Indian Agent, about their desire for missionaries to come on out and teach the good word. The actual mission to St. Louis remains shrouded in mystery and legend for numerous reasons, but it is no surprise the glee with which Eastern proselytizers responded and rang the bells of alarm.

“May we not indulge,” asked one elated soul in a letter, “the hope that the day is not far distant when the missionaries will penetrate into these wilds where the Sabbath bell has never tolled since the world began! Let the Church awake from her slumbers and go forth in her strength to the salvation of these wandering sons of our native forests.“ “Hear! Hear!,” wrote another editorial. “Who will respond to the call from beyond the Rocky Mountains?”

Whitman, after receiving approval from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, finding a wife for the journey, and embarking on a scouting mission, was off, accompanied by the Spaldings, whose mission to the region was a last-second audible in their own plans. Eliza Spalding ultimately made the call. Mark 16:15 was the lodestar: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”


Julia Ireland, who teaches philosophy at Whitman and was once a student here, told me that in the academy there is a lot of concern for an “unreflective presentism” running increasingly rampant in contemporary cultural discussion. “With the presentism,” she said, “you get rid of the possibility of the interpretive archaeology or genealogy that says in living with the present, we always are living simultaneously within the structure of past significations that have informed that present, but are not accessible to us. But we live out their presuppositions… We live out their entanglements, we live out their confusions. And we have less ability to be able to excavate them.” Via recontextualization, via juxtaposition, historical artifacts that have become offensive can be retained but not endorsed. They can be reckoned with.

The Whitman administration, for its part, has largely eschewed these academic terms of debate, although it has acknowledged their legitimacy. Josh Jensen, Whitman’s new Vice President of Communications (who was not here when the decision to change the mascot was made) wrote in an email that “these moves mirror greater awareness of difference in society and, generally, a desire to make our communities more inclusive and welcoming.” Pretty straightforward.

Kathy Murray initiated the Mascot Change working group in December 2015, the first semester of her presidency. Its guiding principles included respect for tradition, seeking to foster a “sense of inclusion and unity among the Whitman ‘family’” and seeking to “create a positive inflection point in the college’s history and a bridge between past and current students.”

The conclusion was that retaining the missionary mascot either didn’t accomplish, or actively undermined those ends.

Brenna TwoBears, co-president of the Indigenous Peoples Culture Club (IPECC), which supported the name change, framed the decision to retire the Missionary as a first step, important in and of itself, but meaningful only if followed by substantive changes like scholarships for native students, broader institutional support systems, like native professors teaching native subjects, and a “generally better atmosphere on campus.”

This summer, Whitman will host a workshop for College Horizons, a New Mexico-based nonprofit that provides college and graduate admissions workshops for Native Americans. According to Dean of Admissions Tony Cabasco, Whitman will have hosted the most workshops (four) of any of the organization’s 58 partners, and Whitman admissions offers specific financial assistance to admitted students from the program. Cabasco also wrote in an email that the college is currently developing a partnership with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, with which it has also had partnerships in the past.

However, some symbols certainly still stand. Don Snow referenced a meeting in which “somebody said–it might have been me (I’m old and forgetful and very weak)–that if we’re going to change the name of the mascot, because of those kinds of resonances of associations that have now become unacceptable to a large number of people associated with the academy, why don’t we change the name of the school? Why would we stop at the mascot? If you wanna get people upset, like alums, donors, administrators, Christendom, go ahead and change the name of the college for many of the same reasons.”

The report, for its part, said “it must be noted that by no means does this recommendation suggest that the name of the college itself be changed. The working group strongly believes Whitman to be an appropriate name for the college.”

No further rationale was offered. One would presume, however, that unlike the Missionary mascot, the college’s name itself – regardless of its baggage – remains a historical referent with which the community genuinely does identify.


Whitman’s “About” page tells us how many trees are on campus, how many study abroad options there are, the student-teacher ratio and the percentage of students that play intramural sports (70 percent!!!). Marketing is easy to mock when you’re privy. But what would you say? The bolded tag line atop the page that states that, “Whitman is more than the sum of its parts,” may be cliché, but it’s an ode to the difficulty of the task, an active embrace of the decentralized Whitman identity.

Don Snow has been trying to articulate the Whitman “thing” that he has sensed from the very first time he came to campus from the University of Montana to give a talk in 1999. He says he’s failed, but he fears the effort to bottle and brand the college. He hopes “we can’t articulate the thing,” that it remains a “sort of mystical, magical and undefinable essence.” And in any case, whatever the Whitman “thing” is, he said, is not necessarily unique to Whitman, but to a community of sister liberal arts schools.

“The liberal arts tradition is a very peculiar thing on the planet,” Snow said. “It’s largely an American thing. And its fugitive. It could well die … We are united in a certain educational perspective … We stand against the overwhelming push towards increasing specialization earlier and earlier in our lives. We believe in the broadness, breath of mind, we really do.

“This all sounds corny,” he continued, “but if we’re Missionaries this is what we’re missionizing. We believe in those kinds of traditions. I don’t know a single professor at this college who does not rejoice when he or she realizes that the student sitting right there, who is knocking the lights out in … a physics thesis, or an environmental humanities creative nonfiction thesis, is also an oboist. And a pretty damn good one. And, by the way, has also decided to take two classes in a row in Chinese. That’s us, right? And we know that’s us. We so know that’s us that we don’t even bother to say that very much to one another.”

A visit to Waiilatpu, now the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, was once a staple of first-year orientation. The practice was discontinued in 1967 and reinstituted from 1987-1991. It is standard practice in Environmental Studies-120 to embark on a series of local excursions, one of which brings students to the Mission. Snow says that, were he the “Whitman Dictator, [he] would restore that tradition of taking [all] first year students … You could do it in Encounters… You’d have to do it in platoons or busses or whatever. Maybe you could do it with drones. Just remote cameras could do it now.”

“But,” Snow continued, “to get the students literally on the ground there … to think about the phenomenon of this college and where it’s located not only in space but in time, that seems to me to be a good liberal arts thing to do.”

“The mascot debate,” said Snow, “is indicative of wider spread change. If you change the mascot, something systemic is pushing that change. Ultimately it’s not about the mascot. It’s about something deeper … It’s about the college’s sense of identity. What is the college? Who is the community that calls itself Whitman? Can we rely on a conservative vision of the past, a continuous identity, so that if my grandchildren go to Whitman, they’ll go to the same Whitman I went to?” He says that to him, the outcome of these debates is far less important than the process. He says his initial reaction was wrong: “The mascot actually has real content.”

Ireland said she was fine with the decision to change the mascot, though she would have preferred a less neutral replacement then Blues, such as Salmon, because a historical referent would have been better maintained via a symbolism that not only predates the missionaries, but remains a “living … political issue … and a potent cultural symbol” into the present.

She was struck by this cultural potency during a visit to Tamaskalit, the museum of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla, which is about an hour south of Whitman. In the nearby Wildhorse Casino, zombified white people are (literally) connected by wires to slot machines, but just down the road, the delightful museum endeavors to tell the story of local native cultures on their own terms. One plaque reads that, as Protestant and Catholic missionaries feuded amongst themselves, “It did not take long for our people to become disenchanted by the missionary enterprise. We began to view these messengers of god as common, mundane men and women possessing human weakness.”

What you notice about the museum is what Don Snow told me of the confederation and the sort of human diversity its people embody. “The missionization didn’t fully blend them in. They are like most Native Americans–they are partly melted. But the part that remained unmelted has now become a point of restoration and resurrection, and a great deal of cultural pride. And it’s not for sentimental or romantic reasons. It has to do with the confirmation of their very identity as people.”


On the corner of Rose and 3rd, Mill Creek trickles beneath the streets as pickup trucks motor by, and bearded men in lanyards leave the Army Corps of Engineers regional headquarters, and pretty couples enter the Marcus Whitman hotel. Amongst it all, a large bronze statue of Walla Walla Chief Peo-Peo-Mox-Mox stands on a stone pedestal. A spear, adorned with leaves and skins, hangs in his left hand. With his other, he holds a long pipe against his chest. His robe drapes over his arm, as though blowing in the wind. An intricate beaded necklace hangs against his chest. His hair flows down past his shoulders.

Before Leonetti Wine Cellars opened its doors, before the Army Corps damned the Lower Snake, before Reverend Eells reluctantly accepted Dorsey Baker’s Walla Walla land, before he, Peo Peo Mox Mox, was mutilated and murdered by Oregon volunteer soldiers after offering himself up to make peace in the Indian Wars, before the Whitman clan was murdered, before his son Elijah Redding was murdered by California traders, before Fort Walla Walla, before Lewis and Clark were warmly greeted by the Nez Perce, Yellow Bird, Peo-Peo-Mox-Mox, was here. Today, spring hangs in the blue air, the American flag flaps in the wind, the adjacent cherry tree blossoms red and Yellow Bird gazes eastward, as always, with those curious eyes, strong cheekbones and shallow wrinkles. Somehow, he is easy to miss.

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