Don’t idolize Narcissa Whitman


Illustration by Elena Kaminskaia

Nidhi Jaltare, Columnist

“I am a stranger here myself,” by Debra Gwartney, is a book about a young mother who fled Idaho because of its gender expectations. She makes peace with her roots by finding inspiration from Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, specifically her birth and violent death. This violent death happened because Narcissa’s husband, Marcus Whitman, ruthlessly let the Native American population die while treating Americans as a doctor. This caused outrage, and the Whitman Massacre took place because of it. Narcissa’s “violent” death happened because the missionaries were letting people die, untreated, and had even allegedly poisoned them. I recently came across posters that encouraged reading and discussing this book.

This is problematic on so many levels, especially coupled with the atmosphere on campus. The recent vandalisms might have been frowned upon by the Whitman administration, but they express pain. What does this book discussion do? It aggravates the pain. Just a couple of weeks ago, Kathy sent emails about how vandalism is not the solution to the problem, and how we require “dialogue.” However, this form of dialogue where we put murderers on pedestals is not productive, but hurtful. It does not make any sense to discuss this book during such a tumultuous time. 

This is a time when we need to read something that empowers us, that lets us accept each other, that makes this campus and this town a better and more inclusive place. Yet, we stick to apathy. I did not see an email about how hurtful this book could be to some people.

Part of living in the Whitman community is pushing hard for diversity and inclusivity. Emotional labor, time and money are being put into this activism. Most of these activists are students with multiple jobs, and empathizing with this memoir is a wet blanket on all of this effort. It goes against our values, at least for some of us. Promoting this book is an apathetic initiative, and I am surprised it wasn’t crushed before I saw the poster. Some students received emails about it encouraging them to read the book, and some of them were people of color, which makes it worse.

Minorities on this campus already feel out of place. Whitman advertises itself as a diverse college. Whitman was actually mentioned in a list of colleges that you should go to if you want to change the world. However, it does not seem to be doing so the right way. If you cannot find a way to ease the pain, do not put salt on the wound. This is the least we ask of you. We are supposed to be reading books that teach us empathy and equality, not books that adulate the Whitmans.