Marcus Whitman statue

The statue of pioneer missionary Marcus Whitman at the five-way intersection near Whitman College at Main Street and Boyer Avenue.

A team of Whitman College students and staff have worked over the summer on research and a new proposal for what to do with the Marcus Whitman statue at the west entrance toward campus.

The statue has been a focal point of debate at the college for years and has been vandalized several times in red paint, sometimes with words such as “genocide.”

More recently, the city of Walla Walla, which owns the statue, has taken an interest in discussing the figure, as many residents have spoken out against the statue and its placement.

Discussions at the city level began as part of a national swell in the removal of statues of figures said to represent racial injustice alongside a lack of representation of statues for indigenous people and minority groups.

During a virtual meeting Wednesday of the city’s Arts Commission at 11 a.m., committee members will discuss the city’s public art policy on deaccession, or removal.

Committee members and the public will also hear from two researchers, Libby Miller, director of Whitman’s Maxey Museum and an art history professor at the college, and Kynde Kiefel, co-director of the Sheehan Gallery.

“We are talking about the statue, but we’re also talking a little more broadly about ‘Well, what is our policy for when we need to decommission an artwork or relocate an artwork or those types of things,’” said Walla Walla Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain.

“So it’s a broader policy discussion, but then the Marcus Whitman statue will be specifically brought up.”

In August, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said the city will eventually hold a public forum on the matter to gather input from residents and invite participation from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

The city’s Arts Commission committed to giving City Council a recommendation on the statue by early October.

The group’s research was funded by Whitman’s Community Engaged Learning and Research initiative. The research team consists of Miller, Kiefel, and three students, two the co-presidents of Whitman’s Indigenous People’s Education and Culture Club, and one hired as a designer.

Some of their discoveries include the statue’s origin and historical inaccuracy.

The Marcus Whitman statue was made in the ‘50s by Avard Fairbanks, more than a century after Marcus Whitman died. The sculpture is a recast of the original placed in Statuary Hall at the nation’s capital. The recast version was installed on the Whitman campus in the early ‘90s.

Marcus Whitman, a physician and missionary, and his wife Narcissa were among the first white settlers in the Valley.

According to the research, there are no known photographs of Marcus Whitman, so there is no way of knowing what he looked like beyond how a medical missionary in the first half of the 19th century might have appeared, and what he wore and carried with him.

From what the researchers know, Whitman did not look like the statue, but because of his fringed vest, coonskin cap, and long flowing locks appears more like the 1950s television version of Davy Crockett, Miller said.

“A lot of our research has focused on the monument itself and the ways in which it doesn’t actually give us any kind information about history,” Miller said.

“One of the fears that people have, and I think a legitimate fear, is that removing monuments is an erasure of history. But I think what we sometimes forget is how that history is not the history that it’s claiming to be.”

She said having a record of the statue is important because it still gives us information about monuments created in the 1950s.

Other aspects of their research dived into the depths of how statues have been reimagined.

Kiefel said the idea of this national movement being a new wave of removal or teardown of statues is seen many times throughout centuries of history.

“In ancient Rome they would melt down the busts of an emperor when he fell or died to recast the bust of a new emperor,” Miller said.

When we’re tackling monuments, she said, there is a fear of negative aspersions cast on historical figures and a desire to grant them their place in their time and blame historical figures for all of the bad things in the 19th century.

Monuments tend to memorialize historical events through one single figure, she said, but one figure could be alienating to others and not represent their conception of history.

“I think that a lot of what’s going on with monuments now is a desire to make space for other folks, other versions of history,” she said. “Monuments in the way that we think of them in that kind of Euro-American tradition of representing the heroes of history are not the only way of thinking about history and representing history materially.”

Their proposal, which they have not yet announced publicly, may be considered on the city level and with Whitman College. Nonprofit arts group ArtWalla also worked on the proposal.

The Arts Commission meeting will be the first time the research and possibly a few feasible options in the proposal will be presented to the public and can be viewed at ubne.ws/artscomission.

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.