Native American Heritage Month at Whitman

Nazaaha Penick, News Reporter

Illustration by Megan Suka.

Native American Heritage Month and the 175th anniversary of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman’s death took place this November. 

Declared on Aug. 3, 1990 by the Bush administration, Native American Heritage Month is recognized nationally in November. Deliberately placed as the same month of Thanksgiving, the month’s purpose is to celebrate the contributions Indigenous people have made to the United States

Whitman College was built upon Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla homelands after these native groups were forced off of them under the Treaty of 1855. Led by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, instances of paternalism and cultural missteps during the Whitman Mission caused tensions to grow with the Cayuse people. The measles outbreak of 1847 was a breaking point. On Nov. 29, 1847, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were killed at the Whitman Mission. 

Park Ranger for the Whitman Mission Historic Site and Whitman alumna Kate Kunkel-Patterson ‘13 talked in depth about understanding Native American history. She spoke to the sustained collaboration between the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) and the national park in telling the story of the Whitman Mission. 

“CTUIR is partnered with us in telling this story because so much of the story that we tell here is a Cayuse story. We trust that CTUIR and the tribe know how to tell that story better than us, and so we work with them to tell it,” Kunkel-Patterson said.

Alumna Blythe Monoian ‘14, of Blackfeet (Amskapi Pikuni or Southern Piegan), Muckleshoot and Squaxin Island descent, talks about the effect of focusing on the history of Native Americans. She advises others to seek out information and educate themselves on Native American history. 

“I think Native Americans are sometimes seen as historical objects, and there is little day-to-day information to prove otherwise,” Monoian said. “If someone is interested in knowing, there are so many news outlets, social media, television shows, YouTube videos, books, TikToks, art, etc. produced by Natives for everyone to see. Start there, and learn something. Learn about the other side of the history of the country you live in.”

Senior Tatiana Villegas is an Tlingit Alaskan Native; she wants to shift the focus from the negative aspects of Native American history and highlight the beauty of Native life. 

“I think it’s really important to focus on joy, life and the unique personalities and individuals; Native Americans are resilient and strong, and [people should focus on] what it means to be Native in a positive light.”

Calvin Rapada, who is part of the Nooksack and Shxwhá:y tribes and a staff attorney for the Swinomish Indian tribe, talks about the importance of celebrating Native American Heritage Month. 

“I think [Native American Heritage Month] is growing. I think the significance of it is to take the focus off the old meaning of Thanksgiving, and it’s a time to learn about the history of Native Americans. [It is] definitely time to respect the culture and get to know the culture.” 

Addressing the steps that Whitman can take as an academic institution directly, Villegas points to the issues with Whitman’s land ownership. 

“If you want to say in your land statements that we are on the lands of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla original peoples, why not give them back their land?” Villegas said. “You were given it for free, and you have a lot of lands that can be used for who knows what: agriculture, educational space or anything that you want. So that’s the first step, Whitman. Please give back land because you can, and it’s feasible for you to do that.”