Whitman adopts official land acknowledgment statement

Grace Fassio, Staff Reporter

On Oct. 12, President Kathy Murray released Whitman College’s official acknowledgment to honor Native peoples. It recognizes that the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla peoples are the traditional stewards of the land where Whitman is located.

The official statement reads: “Whitman College is located on the traditional Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla homelands. We pay our respect to tribal elders both past and present and extend our respect to all indigenous people today. We honor their stewardship of the land and ecosystem and commit to continuing that important work.”

Whitman plans to display this statement at all major college events, like commencement and graduation, and on its website.

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton explained in an email to The Wire that the idea for the land acknowledgment started when members of the community, mostly students, expressed interest in an official statement, and the process to develop it took several months. Tipton, who is the primary conduit between Whitman and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), requested and edited the CTUIR’s recommended land acknowledgment for Whitman’s use.

“I requested that acknowledgement, and then worked with the advisory committee to the CTUIR relationship and the President’s Cabinet to finalize the acknowledgement,” Tipton said. “Additions suggested by the co-presidents of [the Indigenous Peoples Education and Culture Club] and an Indigenous staff member were incorporated into the acknowledgement.”

Indigenous Peoples Education and Culture Club (IPECC) and Pacific Islanders Club (PIC) Co-President Cheysen Cabuyadao-Sipe believes that the official land acknowledgment is a great start for Whitman. 

“For me, I think that the statement signals hope that things are starting to move towards the right direction,” Cabyuadao-Sipe wrote to The Wire in an email.

When Cabuyado-Sipe first received the draft to provide feedback, he believed that it was too short. He wanted it to include more historical context to create a sense of awareness regarding the colonialism faced by indigenous peoples. However, Cabuyado-Sipe acknowledged that this longer statement would have taken much longer to create. 

Despite this, he is still pleased with the acknowledgment because it facilitates conversations about indigenous rights. He believes that the email that announced the statement encourages the Whitman community to start engaging with the land acknowledgment and to continue to build upon its foundations.

“Acknowledgement is an ongoing process that should never be a final action,” Cabuyado-Sipe said. “Even now, it is important to understand that it’s not only just a land acknowledgment, but also a people’s acknowledgement, too.”

IPECC Co-President Erica Keevama explained in an email to The Wire that it is incredibly important that Whitman has this acknowledgement considering the role that Marcus Whitman played in the acquisition of this land from Indigenous peoples. However, she felt that the statement was too short and felt rushed.

“Personally I think that the email felt rushed in order to get it out on Indigenous Peoples Day,” Keevama said. “I understand the college’s desire to announce the official land acknowledgment on such a fitting occasion, but I feel that without action to back up the acknowledgment, the words ring hollow.” 

While the acknowledgment is a great step forward, Keevama and Cabuyado-Sipe both agree that there are many ways Whitman can move forward regarding Indigenous rights. 

Tipton explained that many areas on campus are working towards inclusivity of Indigenous peoples, such as the Advisory Council for CTUIR Collaboration, the President’s Cabinet and the Student Engagement Center (SEC).

“Some examples of that work include programs for joint classes for students from Whitman and students from CTUIR, summer programs for CTUIR youth, scholarships for Indigenous students and cultural exchanges such as matches of The Creator’s Game and visits by Whitman students to feasts,” Tipton said.

Cabuyado-Sipe said that both IPECC and PIC are continuously working to find opportunities for everyone at Whitman to have a space to thrive and feel heard. Discussions held during the Indigenous Peoples Day Town Hall helped to create a list of ideas to achieve this goal. Both clubs are currently in the planning stages for some of these projects.

“Some action plans included the creation of an Indigenous Studies Department/Program, recontextualization of the Marcus Whitman statue, increasing the awareness of indigenous narratives and histories (written and oral), providing more safe spaces for indigenous faculty, staff and students (such as an Indigenous Interest House), continuing to build stronger relationships with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and so much more,” Cabuyado-Sipe said.