Two-thousand eleven has been a whirlwind for the students bringing back a Whitman yearbook. After struggling to get ASWC funding, they rushed to produce a yearbook in three months and have sold all but a handful of their 350 copies. Lost in the process was broad discussion about their decision to stick with the yearbook’s historical name — Waiilatpu.
According to Mike Dedman, educational specialist for the Whitman Mission National Historic Site, Waiilatpu was the original name of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s mission. Waillatpu is a Cayuse phrase for “place of rye grasses.” After the Whitmans’ deaths, the mission was renamed in their honor.
Sophomore Ben Lerchin, editor-in-chief of Waiilatpu, said that the yearbook staff considered new names, but ultimately went with tradition.
“Choosing that name was partially a reflection of the fact that we hadn’t created anything yet, but it was obviously going to come from the legacy of Whitman [College],” he said. “I think the decision was more about preserving history than about saying a mission statement.”
Although the name Waiilatpu is ingrained in the yearbook’s history, it is also reflective of the United States dark past with native populations.
The Whitmans ventured West in an effort to convert the Cayuse tribe to Christianity, in the process infecting the tribe with measles; ultimately, members of the tribe killed the Whitmans.
ASWC Finance Chair and President-elect senior Matt Dittrich said that he was unaware that Waiilatpu was a reference to the mission and would have discussed it in the Senate had he known.
“I wasn’t aware of it,” he said. “We’re not into amending or censoring the artistic material and decisions, but it probably would have been nice to have a conversation about.”
Junior Meghan Bill, a race and ethnic studies major, said she was also concerned by the lack of a conversation about the implications of the name.
“I don’t think students know what Waiilatpu means, and I think that is potentially problematic,” she said. “[History is] important for our students to understand : our school’s name, our yearbook’s name, our school mascot, the area in which the school is located. I think students not knowing what it means neglects any kind of dialogue about that history, which is a really important conversation to have.”
Although Bill believes it makes sense to stick with the name now, she nonetheless says that it’s problematic.
“I think it makes sense that the yearbook staff wanted to keep the tradition, but I don’t really like it because I don’t see the sense of having the name Waiilatpu in the first place,” she said.
With the yearbook back, Dittrich said now is a good time for a discussion.
“I’d be really interested to have a larger student discussion on this now that the yearbook will be alive and well for at least the next year or two,” he said. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for ASWC to make a decision about what the name should be, but I think it’s appropriate for students to have a discussion about it and let the yearbook staff know.”
Lerchin said he hasn’t heard any comments on the name, but that’s largely because of how the yearbook was marketed.
“That hasn’t been a question that’s come up for it at all. We’ve largely tried to market it as the ‘Whitman yearbook’,” he said, noting that ‘Waiilatpu’ didn’t have name recognition.
For now, Waiilatpu has its focus on growth. Lerchin envisions a longer production process and more planned-out content, and thinks the yearbook will grow into its name in that process.
“I think it will be a name we grow into and it will be interesting to see once people know more about it what they associate with it,” he said.