Many Whitman students and faculty have been fighting for years for the removal of the Marcus Whitman statue that stands on the outskirts of our campus. In past years, students and faculty have found a variety of ways to express the outrage many of us feel towards this blatant symbol of romanticization of colonizers.
The demonstrations around campus may have slowed down, but Walla Walla’s penchant for colonial history has not.
In Washington DC, Representative Debra Lekanoff, member of Tlingit tribe, brought forward House Bill 1372 to request the statue of Marcus Whitman at the U.S. capitol to be swapped with environmental activist and Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank Jr. Representative Lekanoff described the true history of Marcus Whitman as a story of colonization, as the missionary attempted to force the Cayuse people to assimilate to Christianity in the 1840’s and was later at fault for the death of many.
As Washington DC replaces the statue of a colonizer with human rights icon Billy Frank Jr, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee plans to send the Marcus Whitman statue, identical to the already existing statue on the border of the college campus, towards Walla Walla county in the upcoming years. This new statue may stand next to another colonizer, Christopher Columbus, in front of the Walla Walla county courthouse.
Walla Walla county is built upon a colonial and violent history as the land was stolen from Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla people. However, much of the county expresses its indifference towards this history through the memorials of both Marcus Whitman and Christopher Columbus.
We cannot erase the past of colonization, and the removal or prevention of colonizer memorials would not change anything about the past or fix the present, but it is important to question why we feel so strongly about keeping these statues here. Memorializing people such as Marcus Whitman and Christopher Columbus in such public ways spreads the message that we idolize and celebrate their violent acts. This romanticization is a threat to many human beings, and it should not be normalized.
People have argued that the removal of these statues would also erase the true history of colonization, but that does not mean that a more humane recognition of the past does not exist. It is important to consistently recognize colonization and the way it bleeds into our lives today, and it may be extremely productive to educate the entire Walla Walla community about the colonial history of this land by replacing these statues with plaques giving full acknowledgment that states the true history.
However, full and honest recognition is not enough. Reparations for the severe mistreatment of Indigenous people are long overdue. Spreading consciousness about the mass murder and oppression of Indigenous people of the land we have stolen will not make any positive change if we are not taking real action. The oppression we force upon Indigenous people never came to an end, and the longer we refuse reparations after extreme exploitation of the human beings belonging to Indigenous communities, the harder we make it for their survival.
It should not be normal to idolize people of history who stole resources and attempted to destroy communities and cultures. The addition of more statues is violent, especially placing statues of colonizers side by side, and it is time that Walla Walla finds ways to truly respect and care for Indigenous communities.