Walla Walla County may receive second Marcus Whitman statue

Rosa Woolsey, Staff Reporter

Walla Walla’s Marcus Whitman statue might receive company. A twin statue has resided in the National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol in Washington, D.C., for the past 70 years. Each state contributed two sculptures of prominent citizens to this chamber. Washington contributed Marcus Whitman and Mother Joseph, but they might not be there for long.

House Bill 1372 proposes to replace the Marcus Whitman statue with one of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribe member, Native American environmental leader and treaty rights activist. He was known for his efforts in leading grassroots campaigns to protect natural resources and fishing rights in the Pacific Northwest.

In an interview with the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Kat Brigham, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and a member of the Cayuse tribe, spoke in support of the bill, of the Whitman statue’s return to Walla Walla, and sending Billy Frank Jr. to D.C.

“We’re basically supporting a Billy Frank statue being placed there because of his leadership in rebuilding the natural resources for the Pacific Northwest,” Brigham said. “[W]e all understand that when we’re protecting the natural resources for a tribe, we’re also protecting it for the Pacific Northwest region, and he’s not only done this for the Pacific Northwest, he has done it across the United States and has been recognized for his leadership.”

The bill has passed Washington’s House of Representatives with a 92-5 vote and is making its way through the state Senate.

This bronze Marcus Whitman statue, by artist Avard Fairbanks, was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Washington State in 1953. Photo contributed by Statuary Hall.

This is not the first time representatives have proposed removing Marcus Whitman from Statuary Hall. In January 2019, a proposal to create a working group in the state Senate to replace the statue was met with backlash. Ultimately, they voted to retain Whitman’s statue.

State Rep. Skyler Rude — who represents Walla Walla in the 16th Legislative District — is confident that this new bill will pass.

“The bill was voted out of the House with strong bipartisan support. The bill is expected to pass the Senate,” Rude wrote in an email to The Wire.

Rude initially voted “no” on this bill in hopes to involve more local input. He presented an amendment to the bill that would bring the Whitman statue in Statuary Hall back to Walla Walla county. His amendment was ultimately adopted.

“There is no site identified, but within the county boundary is where it will be re-sited,” Rude said. “It has to go somewhere, so Walla Walla County seemed most appropriate because it encompasses the historical home of the Whitmans.”

Senior Erica Keevama, Co-President of the Indigenous People’s Education and Culture Club (IPECC), is a big fan of the proposal to put a statue honoring Billy Frank Jr. in the Capitol.

“When I first heard about the proposal I was pretty surprised,” Keevama said. “It would be a huge step forward in regards to Indigenous relations and recognition. However, I remain skeptical on how far this proposal will be allowed to go given how much opposition we have seen here in Walla Walla about the removal of the Marcus Whitman statue on campus.”

Walla Walla’s Marcus Whitman statue has been a topic of local controversy. It was defaced multiple times over the past several years and has been the subject of various student forums and demonstrations. Calls for its removal persist.

Keevama reflected upon what the introduction of a second Whitman statue could mean given the context of how Walla Walla’s statue has been a feature of debate. 

“Having two Marcus Whitman statues in Walla Walla would definitely complicate the controversy already present,” Keevama said.

Rep. Rude considers the Whitmans to be essential characters in the history of the Walla Walla Valley. He noted that Whitman College’s history is inextricably linked with Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. 

“Folks can debate and judge the lives of the Whitmans, but they are a prominent part of Walla Walla’s history, regardless of their shortcomings,” Rude said. “Of course, with an 1840’s worldview on race, culture and religion, it is to be expected that we would not approve of their views and methods in a variety of areas. However, it is unfair and misguided to discount the good they attempted to do, and did, in the valley.”