Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Marcus Whitman and Columbus Statues Continue to Cause Controversy

Ongoing discourse continues around the Marcus Whitman and the Columbus statues as their histories continue to cause controversy. Members of both the Whitman and Walla Walla community have expressed sentiments about the possible removal or relocation of these statues. 

Some community members view the Marcus Whitman statue as a symbol of local history and heritage, while others see it as a reminder of colonialism and the displacement of Indigenous peoples. The Christopher Columbus statue elicits similar opinions as a consequence of Columbus’s contribution to American and global history as an explorer, but also a colonizer of native land. These differing viewpoints reflect how the broader Walla Walla community is reckoning with the legacies of these controversial historical figures. 

The Marcus Whitman statue was erected in commemoration of the American missionary and physician and currently sits on the west edge of campus. It has been under extensive scrutiny over the past few years as a consequence of Whitman’s contentious history. The Columbus statue in front of the Walla Walla sub-county courthouse faces scrutiny for similar reasons.  

There have been a number of movements both on and off campus advocating for the removal of these statues. On April 23, 2021, Whitman Teaches The Movement (WTTM) and Indigenous People’s Education and Culture Club (IPECC) held a protest on campus for the removal of the Marcus Whitman statue. On June 12, 2020, Sam Aparicio, a student at Walla Walla Community College, started a change.org petition to remove the Columbus statue. 

“Why should we have a statue dedicated to a man who stands as a symbol for the violence of 500 years of colonial oppression at the hands of European explorers?” the petition said. ”It seems obvious that a statue dedicated to Columbus is inappropriate, and should have been removed long before now. We are writing with the hope that you will take action on this pressing issue, particularly amidst the current climate surrounding issues of systemic racial injustice. We are demanding the removal of the Columbus statue.” 

The petition currently sits at 2,332 signatures with a goal of 2,500.

The Whitman Office of Communications provided a statement to The Wire regarding the Marcus Whitman Statue and its modern relationship to campus.

“The Marcus Whitman statue has been a valuable tool for teaching and learning about the complex history of the college and the region as well as how the portrayal of our history changes over time,” the statement said. “Regardless of the location of the statue, it is just one piece of that history and there are a number of ways in which to provide a fuller understanding that more broadly represents different perspectives.”

The statement referenced the importance of lifting up conversations by members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) whose ancestors were the original inhabitants of the land the statue currently resides on and who were greatly affected by the actions of Marcus Whitman.

The Walla Walla City Council has had several meetings discussing the future of these monuments, whether they be removed or relocated. As an advisory body to the City Council and City Manager, the Walla Walla Arts Commission was established in 2018 with the mission to promote the arts, diversity in the arts and cultural opportunities, stewardship of the City’s public art collection, and advice to the city on issues relating to the arts and culture. The Arts Commission also examines and makes recommendations regarding any artwork that should be removed from the city’s collection of public art. 

In July 2022, the Arts Commission proposed Resolution 2022-90, which outlined four options for the City Council to choose. In a five-two decision, the Council decided on the fourth option to continue the matter for public study and take final action at a later date.

The decision went against the staff recommendation to deny the request to move the statue from the public art collection and add educational plaques to better contextualize the statue and Whitman’s legacy in the region.  

Associate Professor of Social Work and Sociology at Walla Walla University Emily Tillotson spoke in support of removing the statue at the July 2022 City Council meeting.

“Placing the statue in a museum setting will create meaningful learning opportunities and discussion – adding a plaque near the main street statue is not capable of doing the thoughtful work and education curation can do. Placing a plaque by a statue that is associated with the genocide of Indigenous groups fails to show a deep commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion because it leaves the statue in a glorified community position and omits a great deal of established history,” Tillotson said in an email to The Wire.

Tillotson also mentioned how relocating the statue provides an opportunity for community dialogue about public art that is enjoyed by everyone and does not represent painful history for Indigenous groups. 

Jeanine Gordon is the Assistant to the President for Native American Outreach at Whitman. In an email to The Wire, Gordon explained what the statues represent from an Indigenous perspective. 

“As a descendent of Cayuse and Walla Walla Tribes, when I see the Marcus Whitman statue on campus as it stands, without our Tribal ancestors’ side of the story anywhere in sight, it reflects a painful, traumatic and one-sided telling of history. The statue does not accurately reflect the effort, work and steps being taken through the Memorandum of Agreement and continued relationship-building between Whitman College and the CTUIR to help people understand the history and the people that Marcus and Narcissa Whitman lived with, our region and the emergence of the College,” Gordon said.

Gordon called for more accurate and up-to-date visual pieces that reflect this complex history.

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    DebbieOct 16, 2023 at 8:36 pm

    Excellent, well researched and well written article Sybella Ssewakiryanga!! So much food for thought.