Op-ed: Re: Defacement of Marcus & Narcissa Whitman’s Images

Beth Call

As a lifelong Walla Wallan, I understand the anger motivating the defacement of images of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman.  The stealing of the Native American’s homeland in WA,OR, ID, the US failure to keep treaties & the ensuing cruel wars, the consideration of Native Americans as inferior to “whites”, were a continuation of the practices of the US government that had stolen the Native American lands across the continent.

Yet it is important to try to see the goals of the Whitman Mission through the eyes of  Marcus and Narcissa living in the first half of the 1800’s.  In reading Narcissa’s diary, one sees that she really saw Christianity as a great gift to the Native Americans.  Indeed the Cayuse originally invited the Whitmans to share their land.  Marcus thought the Native Americans could better survive the “white tide” if they became farmers and established a claim to specific  lands, abandoning their nomadic life style.  Of course, the increasing numbers of white settlers arriving on the Oregon Trail, the fatal sicknesses they brought, the inability of Whitman to cure Native Americans, resulting in the decimation of the tribe, led to tragic conflict.

Now many of us in recent years have opened our eyes to the beauty and wisdom of the Native American way of life, living in harmony with and sustained by Nature, but taking care never to deplete her resources.

We can not turn back the pages of history, returning Washington and the US to its original inhabitants.

Whitman students and all non-Indian Americans gain our sustenance, indeed prosperity, from the land and resources originally owned by Native Americans.  Would we really be able to return the land, originally acquired by the hard work of our pioneer ancestors, seldom realizing their injustice? Will defacing the images of Marcus and Narcissa right the wrongs committed?

The Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla, of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation offer a much wiser alternative.  Although they have every reason to hate us white invaders, they instead invite us to ceremonies celebrating the return of the salmon and to their beautiful museum, Tamastlikt, to learn the beauty and wisdom of their way of life but also their tragic history.  They yearn to teach us how to live in harmony with Nature, conserving the life giving water, plants, fish.  They also teach us of broken treaties, stolen revenues, of Native Americans here and across the United States.  A much more constructive way of showing our remorse for past injustices would be to listen to and follow their words of wisdom about living in harmony with Nature, to stand with them against the ongoing breaking of treaties, stealing of land and revenue, raping of their lands whenever it becomes desirable to corporations who want to exploit them for oil and other minerals, regardless of resultant environmental devastation.


Beth Call

Neighbor, former employee & student at Whitman College.