Narcissa Whitman Painting Defaced

Rachel Needham, Staff Reporter

On the morning of Monday, Oct. 9, Prentiss Hall custodians arrived at work to find that the portrait of Narcissa Whitman hanging in the Great Room had been defaced overnight. Accompanying the black spray-paint covering Narcissa’s face was an anonymously-written note which reads: “In 1836, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman began colonizing the land of the Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Peoples. The Whitmans were not martyrs. Let’s remember them for who they were: colonizers, racists, murderers. They brought disease, stole native peoples’ land, and claimed it for themselves, and actively recruited others to do the same. This painting does not serve merely as a remembrance of our past, it glorifies and legitimizes the white supremacy and colonialism our college and nation were––and still are––built upon.”

The former site of the defaced Narcissa Whitman painting. Photo by Samarah Uribe

The portrait was removed that same Monday (also known as Columbus Day, also known as Indigenous Peoples Day), and is now in the care of Kynde Kiefel, Exhibition and Collections Manager for Sheehan Gallery. It is unknown at this time whether or not the painting––which has purportedly been hanging in Prentiss Hall since the 1920s––is restorable.

The note itself bears a few inaccuracies. First, the Whitman Mission was built on the soil of the Cayuse nation, exclusively. Specifically, the land belonged to the Tiloukaikt band of Cayuse, who gave the Whitmans permission to live there (though they did not expect the Whitman mission to become a hub for yet more settlers traveling the Oregon Trail). The Whitmans also never murdered anybody. However, Marcus, a doctor, was unable to cure the Cayuse of measles when an epidemic ravished the area. The disease claimed most of the Cayuse children in the valley and the community’s population dropped by about half. Historians and epidemiologists debate who exactly transmitted the measles to the Cayuse. Some believe white settlers following the Oregon trail brought it with them; others believe the Walla Walla Indians, who had been trading with tribes in present-day California, brought the disease home.

Before restoration. Contributed by The Cultured Pearl

The memorial statue of Marcus Whitman at the intersection of Boyer Avenue and Main Street was also marked on Indigenous Peoples Day. Red paint covering the hands drew public attention and was removed later that day. Scrutiny of monuments venerating historical figures has snowballed in recent months, following the May 2017 removal of four Confederate statues in New Orleans and the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Va. Over the past several weeks, statues across the country memorializing Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt and others have been symbolically marked with red paint in protest.

More on this story will follow next week.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story used two photos of the vandalized painting without consent from the contributor. The original image credits were also misattributed. Both images have since been removed.