On the Hot Seat: Bill targets Marcus Whitman's significance, and our heritage

A significant part of Eastern Washington's history — indeed all of Washington and Oregon history — is under fire in Olympia. And with all the controversy over gun-control , Gov. Jay Inslee’s stumping for president and myriad new taxes, the attack I’m referring to is flying mostly under the radar.
Let me back up a bit.
As a kid growing up in the greater Tri-Cities-area, I looked forward to school field trips. One field trip I still remember vividly. That was the day-trip to the Walla Walla area and an educational outing at Whitman Mission.
Prior to the field trip, in class, we made our own “old-fashioned” lunch pails. We covered metal Folgers coffee cans with brown paper and punched holes in the can to add a handle made from a coat hanger. We wrote our names on the side and were allowed to decorate them. It helped set the tone for a "living history" lesson.
On the day of our field trip, we boarded a bus to “Waiilatpu,” the site of Whitman Mission. There, we learned about Dr. Marcus Whitman, his wife Narcissa, and their cross-country trek to Eastern Washington with the Rev. Henry Spalding and his wife, and a group of fur traders. Whitman himself led one of the first wagon trails west on the Oregon Trail.
We learned about Whitman’s mission, farming, and medical care of the Cayuse and Nez Perce, and their education of American Indian children. Mrs. Whitman was the first settler to give birth to a white American in the Oregon Territory.
Alice Clarissa Whitman drowned in the Walla Walla River at age 2. A historical marker is erected to remember the toddler.
We learned that as more white settlers moved to Oregon Country, the diseases that came with them ravaged the Cayuse and Nez Perce. Cayuse Cheif Tilaukaikt blamed the Whitmans for the deaths and led warriors to Whitman Mission on Nov. 29, 1847. There, they killed the Whitmans and 12 others, and took 53 women and children as prisoners.
We learned that the event was one of the triggers of the Cayuse War, which would last eight years. The Provisional Legislature of Oregon raised a company of 50 volunteers, who headed to The Dalles to protect another mission. Called the “Oregon Rifles,” the men drove off tribal marauders and established Fort Lee.
Eventually, they were re-enforced by a militia of more than 500, who headed to Whitman Mission. En route, they defeated the Cayuse in a battle at Sand Hollows.
We learned that it wasn’t long before the U.S. Army was dispatched to the area to end what had become the Cayuse War. In 1850, with the Cayuse almost defeated, the tribe turned over the chief and four warriors involved in what is now called the Whitman Massacre. All five were hanged, but skirmishes continued for five more years.
On a side note, Springdale and the Mary Walker School District are connected to Whitman Mission.
The rural district in Stevens County is named for Mary Richardson Walker, who gave birth to the first white boy in Oregon Country about 21 months after Narcissa Whitman gave birth to her daughter. That birth occurred at Waiilatpu (Whitman Mission), presumably under the direction of Dr. Marcus Whitman, before she continued on to present-day Stevens County and Tshimakain Mission.
Following the Whitman Massacre, the 60-man “Oregon Volunteers” were dispatched to Tshimakain Mission, to protect settlers and escort missionaries — including Mary Walker — to safety in the Willamette Valley. Today, the school district in Springdale is named for Walker who, along with Narcissa Whitman, was among the first white women in Oregon Country.
While Walker is honored with a legacy school district, the Whitmans are remembered for their contributions to the settlement of the Oregon Territory, and nowadays the states of Washington and Oregon.
Numerous schools, including Whitman College in Walla Walla, are named after Marcus Whitman. An Eastern Washington county and a glacier on Mount Rainier are also named in his honor, and the family gravesite is a national historic site.
What’s more, there are identical bronze statues of Marcus Whitman wearing buckskins and carrying a Bible and satchel in the state and U.S. capitals. Additionally, Sept. 4 is Marcus Whitman Day in Washington state.
But the statues and unofficial holiday may not be standing for long.
In fact, we may be witnessing a second Whitman Massacre in the making, as a Senate Bill 5237 calls for replacing Whitman's statue.
The bill — introduced by Western Washington Democratic Sens. Reuven Carlyle and Rebecca Saldana, both of Seattle; Sam Hunt of Olympia; Joe Nguyen of White Center and Mark Mullet of Issaquah — would create a work group charged with recommending a replacement for the Whitman statues before the end of the year.
The text of the bill says:
“The Legislature finds that under rigorous, objective review Marcus Whitman does not meet the standards of being one our state’s top honorees with a statue display in Olympia and statuary hall in the United States capitol. To address this, the Legislature intends to exercise its ability ... to replace the statue of Marcus Whitman in the national statuary hall. The Legislature also intends to replace the statue of Marcus Whitman in the Washington state capitol building ...”
The bill was already heard in the Senate State Government, Tribal Relations and Elections Committee.
Unfortunately, the senators who are proposing the bill are just “whitewashing” the significance of Marcus Whitman’s role in the Pacific Northwest.
During a hearing on the bill last week, Sen. Carlyle’s justified his support by claiming we are changing as a society, and therefore need to change our view of history. He mentioned changing the statute to American Indian activist Billy Frank Jr. While Billy Frank Jr. is deserving of recognition for his role in fighting for the rights of American Indians, he’s no Marcus Whitman.
The idea to eradicate Marcus Whitman from our state and national capitals smacks of revisionist politicians kowtowing to others who do not have an inkling about the history of the Pacific Northwest.
I guess we should have seen it coming — none of the nation’s historical figures are safe anymore. We see that all over the country as uneducated Americans destroy historical statutes, eradicate the names of prominent Americans from educational texts, and create a false image of who we are today and where we came from.
At least there were a couple sensible voices at the hearing defending Whitman, including my friend Rowland Thompson and Democratic Sen. Dean Takko of Longview. Both cautioned against being revisionists, noting that the next crop of revisionists may follow suit and wipe out the achievements and recognition of individuals significant to our society today.
Our history is our history. We need to understand the good and the bad if we are to know where we came from, who we are and where we are going.
Marcus Whitman earned his place in history — and the Capitol Building in Olympia and in the national statuary in Washington, D.C. If we sit idly by and let his statutes be removed, emboldened revisionists will take aim at schools and other places named in honor of Marcus Whitman. Then they'll move onto another target.
We have a rich history here in Eastern Washington. And we need to remind uneducated revisionists that their political motives are not welcome here, or in our state Senate.
— Roger Harnack is the editor and publisher of the Statesman-Examiner and Deer Park Tribune. Email him at publisher@statesmanexaminer.com.