Marcus Whitman Statue

A Marcus Whitman statue at the western entry to Whitman College.

A bronze sculpture depicting Marcus Whitman may journey to Walla Walla, where another likeness of the pioneering doctor already resides, after nearly 70 years on display in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, D.C.

Walla Walla County Commissioner Todd Kimball said he and his two fellow commissioners have yet to discuss the idea, and he imagines there would be a public process to decide what to do with the statue.

“It will be discussed at a future county commissioner meeting after we have more information as to the costs and liability involved for taxpayers of Walla Walla County,” he said recently.

Walla Walla’s resident Whitman statue has been the subject of debate in the past year, with vandals expressing their displeasure at what they feel the statue represents and a group of residents petitioning for the city to remove it. A third Marcus Whitman statue resides in the Washington state capitol.

Marcus Whitman was a physician and missionary who traveled to present-day Washington state with his wife, Narcissa, establishing several missions with the hope of converting Native Americans to Christianity.

They assisted in the “great emigration” of 1843, which established the Oregon Trail, and settled in present-day Walla Walla County. After an outbreak of measles devastated the Cayuse, tribal members killed the Whitmans, thought to be responsible.

The state House of Representatives approved House Bill 1372 on Monday, March 8, which would replace the statue in Washington, D.C., with one of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member and environmental activist known for protecting the Pacific Northwest’s natural resources.

The bill will head to the Senate after passing with a House bipartisan vote of 92-5.

Rep. Skyler Rude, R-Walla Walla, initially voted “no” on the bill but worked with the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Skagit Valley, on an amendment that would gift the statue to Walla Walla County.

“I voted ‘no’ with the hopes that I could work and get something better out of the bill and something that was for us,” Rude said.

Rude said he has many childhood memories walking around the Whitman Mission National Historic Site outside of town with his grandmother and cousins, like many people in Walla Walla.

“I kind of see Marcus Whitman as a founding father for our area.”

He said 70 years seemed like plenty of time for one person to be recognized in the National Statuary Hall Collection, and though he is grateful that it was someone who represents Walla Walla, it’s fair to allow other areas of the state to have other representation.

Kat Brigham, chairperson of the board of trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and a member of the Cayuse tribe, said these two groups support the bill.

“We’re basically supporting a Billy Frank statue be placed there because of his leadership in rebuilding the natural resources for the Pacific Northwest,” she said.

“He has been a tribal leader who has worked hard to protect our natural resources, and we all understand that when we’re protecting the natural resources for a tribe, we’re also protecting it for the Pacific Northwest region, and he’s not only done this for the Pacific Northwest, he has done it across the United States and has been recognized for his leadership.”

Brigman said Frank mentored her and many other tribal elders in working to restore, enhance and protect natural resources.

“We need to take care of the land so the land can take care of us,” she said.

The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are also supportive of Walla Walla County receiving the statue and would offer to help coordinate with the county in deciding where to place it, she said.

“It’s coming home with a lot of history,” she said.

“I think it’s very positive for both sides, for Marcus Whitman statue, to talk about the story, the county can talk about it being in D.C. … and why it was placed there, and then we, as tribal leaders, can talk about Billy Frank’s history in the Pacific Northwest and how important he was as a tribal leader for protecting our natural resources … not for the rest of the tribes but for everybody in the Pacific Northwest.”

It is up to county leaders and the governor to decide where to put the statue, and funds will be raised to relocate the statue at no expense to the county. The bill requires the transfer of ownership, essentially gifting it to the county, Rude said.

He said nothing prohibits county officials from donating it or otherwise divesting ownership in the future.

Walla Walla’s statueThe city’s current Marcus Whitman statue stands at the west entrance of Whitman College. Owned by the city of Walla Walla, it has been under scrutiny since last summer and was vandalized several times in the past few years with words such as “genocide.”

Last year, the city received 42 comments regarding the fate of the statue, some in support of removing it and some recommending it stay. No decision has been made at this point, Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain said.

The city’s arts commission is close to formalizing a process for the public to submit an application to request the deaccession, or formal removal, of a public art piece.

This process would pave the way for the city to decide whether they could remove the statue based on a set of criteria.

Some of the recent changes to the city’s code set by the arts commission, approved by Walla Walla City Council in January, include allowing a public artwork to be considered for deaccessioning:

  • if there has been five years of recorded public opposition of the piece
  • if the work is significantly incompatible or inferior in the context of the city’s public art collection
  • if, upon historical and contextual review, the artwork is deemed inconsistent in supporting diversity, equity and inclusion in the collection

For the city-owned Marcus Whitman statue to again be up for discussion, the city would have to receive a submitted application, Chamberlain said.

The county’s Columbus statueThe Whitman statue is not the only local piece of art some have called on local officials to remove.

A Christopher Columbus statue, on the grass outside the Walla Walla County Courthouse, was also vandalized last year. An online petition to take down the statue circulated, citing the statue is a symbol of racism and oppression, and attracted many signatures.

Subsequently, the Italian Heritage Association sent a letter to county leaders asking that the statue remain for its original, intended purpose of memorializing the Italian Americans who helped found the Walla Walla community.

Walla Walla County commissioners decided the subject merited an in-person hearing, not possible at the time, during the governor’s restrictions due to the pandemic. The issue is still pending.

Narcissa Whitman monumentAdditionally, Whitman College removed a stone monument honoring Narcissa Whitman from its campus in December.

The monument was created by the Oregon Trail Memorial Association and gifted to Whitman by Adelphi College in 1931, said Gillian Frew, a spokesperson for Whitman College.

The inscription on the monument read, “To Narcissa Prentiss Whitman — One of the two first white women to cross this continent.”

The Whitman College president’s Cabinet decided to remove the plaque last August after the college’s Advisory Council for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Collaboration recommended this.

Cabinet members concluded that the plaque did not contribute to a welcoming campus environment for all students, said Alzada Tipton, provost and dean of the faculty at Whitman College.

There was no cost associated with the removal, she said.

“Part of Whitman College’s values include ensuring that all of our students experience a genuine sense of belonging,” Tipton said.

“It is our understanding that this plaque made it more difficult for some of our students to fully experience this belonging on Whitman’s campus, and that we had an opportunity to address this while still preserving this piece of our history as a part of the college’s archives.”

The college is making an effort to become more inclusive of Indigenous peoples’ perspectives, she said. New student orientation now include a session to teach the history of Indigenous people in the area.

The college also crafted an official land acknowledgment honoring Native peoples in collaboration with the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and Whitman’s Indigenous People’s Education and Culture Club.

“We have also brought Indigenous artists to campus and have increased our purchasing of works by Indigenous artists,” Tipton said.

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.