IPECC Petition Calls on Whitman to Engage with its History

Christy Carley

The Whitman College Indigenous Peoples Education and Culture Club (IPECC) has put forth a petition calling for a critical examination of Whitman’s past and its relationship to colonialism.

The petition requests the reinstatement of a visit to the Whitman Mission during opening week, accompanied by a visit to the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, as well as the inclusion of texts exploring Whitman’s history in the Encounters Program.  IPECC began circulating the petition on Whitman community listservs on Feb. 29. As of March 8 the document has 437 signatures of support from students, staff, faculty and alumni.

Engaging with Whitman’s Past 

Discussions regarding the petition began in the fall semester of 2015, after the Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC) sent out a survey to the student body regarding the potential change of the Missionary mascot and President Kathy Murray set up a working group to evaluate the mascot. Associate Professor of History and IPECC supporter Elyse Semerdjian said that the group hoped to use the momentum from discussions surrounding the mascot change to engage the Whitman community in a larger discussion about the history of the institution.

“The movement towards symbolic change wasn’t doing the educational work that, for me, is my mission here as a historian and a professor. So when does education play a role?” she said. “It seems like there was some momentum there that I thought would feed into IPECC’s and my own personal desire to see more, rather than less, discussion on the history of Whitman and the meanings of these symbols that we’re surrounded by daily.”

Semerdjian said she first became interested in learning more about Whitman’s history after spending a summer in the college’s archives. She realized that she had been previously coming to work each day to teach Middle East history without thinking about the importance of Whitman’s history.

“We sit on a campus that was part of an encampment in the signing of the 1855 treaty…We’re sitting on top of a place where the indigenous people of this region were relegated to reservations,” said Semerdjian. “The ultimate power and privilege is not having to talk about anything that makes you uncomfortable.”  

The petition comes at a time when several schools around the nation are engaging in dialogues similar to Whitman’s regarding institutional history and the way it is commemorated.

Associate Professor of Anthropology Jason Pribilsky, however, emphasized the importance of recognizing that debates about how to remember the history of Whitman are very specific to this institution.

“We’re not just coming on board, we’re not just following in the footsteps of our peer institutions,” he said. “We have specific issues here.”

While several current and past courses in multiple departments have explored Whitman’s history, Semerdjian and the members of IPECC hope that the history of the college can play a more prominent role in education of the community as a whole.

“The members of IPECC think that this information is too important to be an elective course,” said junior Zoey Kapusinski, a member of IPECC. “We really want Whitman to be engaging students [with] the history of this place as part of the first-year experience.”

Trips to the Whitman Mission

Whitman’s history was, at one point, included in the new student orientation program. In the past, Whitman students were required to visit the Whitman Mission, though this was removed from the opening week schedule in the 1990s according to the petition.

Pribilsky, who graduated from Whitman in 1993, remembers trips to the Mission from when he was a student. According to Pribilsky, the trips, at that time, weren’t necessarily designed to promote critical thinking about the history of the college.

“[The trip] was just part of the opening week events,” Pribilsky said. “As far as I recall there was no faculty member that spoke or gave more context for it, there was no debriefing after.”

Pribilsky mentioned, however, that conversations surrounding Whitman’s history did occur while he was a student. He recalled a spike in multiculturalism at both the college and other places around the world, remembering that the 500 anniversary of Columbus’ voyage prompted discussion of colonialism and a reexamination of the Whitman narrative. Pribilsky specifically cited controversy surrounding the placement of the statue of Marcus Whitman on the edge of campus, which was originally intended for a more central location.

Associate Professor of History Nina Lerman described the mission in the 1990s as being largely focused on the story of the Whitmans with little information regarding the indigenous perspective. She notes that this may have had some impact on the decision to discontinue visits to the Mission.

“There was enough awareness for somebody to say that going to visit the Whitman Mission every orientation is starting out with perhaps a story that is not quite the story that we want to be telling,” Lerman said.

In recent years, however, the mission has made efforts to present a more complex and inclusive narrative. One notable change is the replacement of the old informational video with a new one which incorporates the perspectives of members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). The two videos were compared at a campus event on Feb. 8 entitled “Remembering the Whitmans: Monuments, Memorials and Meaning,” which included panelists the Confederated Tribes, the college and the Whitman Mission. Prior to this, the last time an all-campus event had been held to discuss Whitman’s history was in 1997.

Kate Kunkel-Patterson graduated from Whitman in 2013 and now works as a park guide at the Whitman Mission. She said she has enjoyed watching the difference in visitors’ reactions from when she interned there as a student, and now, after the changes have been made to the site.

“People walk out of there a lot of times and they are more conscious about others,…about the land, and about the past,” she said.

Moving Forward

IPECC hopes that the recently proposed trip might allow students to engage with Whitman’s history in a more critical manner. The petition also requests pairing a visit to the mission with a visit to Tamástslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, in order to provide an indigenous perspective on local history.

Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell said that she would be willing to consider the addition of such trips to the orientation program if they reflect the priorities of the community, keeping in mind that orientation should remain focused on aiding students in transitioning to college life. She emphasized, however, that such an addition would necessitate time and money.

“Adding a major initiative to opening week (as requested in the petition) would not only require a larger community discussion, but the addition of extra time and extra funding to make it a reality,” Maxwell said in an email to The Pioneer.

In regards to changes to the Encounters program, Adjunct Instructor of General Studies and Philosophy and Chair of the Encounters Curriculum Subcommittee Timothy Doyle said that the committee has yet to meet since the petition was announced.

He mentioned that Encounters faculty have previously expressed interest in including local history in the curriculum. In the middle of last semester, a proposal to change the theme of the course sparked discussion amongst faculty regarding the possibility of including texts that explore local history. While the proposal didn’t pass, Doyle says that that discussion will be considered while the committee goes through its normal process of updating the syllabus.

“It’s a long process,” Doyle said. “We’re certainly open to thinking about [the inclusion of Whitman history], and we’ve already had discussions about possible shifts in direction that would support this conversation.”

Doyle mentioned that pedagogical issues will also have a place in this discussion in regards to the way in which texts compliment one another.

“There’s a lot of stuff that has to be balanced,” he said.

Pribilsky hopes that whatever changes take place, the complexity and context of the Whitman narrative is emphasized.

“The forces that created the Whitman story…all those forces are still around,” he said. “By complicating [Marcus Whitman] we don’t make any apologies for him. When it gets complicated we can look at current endeavors in the same kind of way.”