Washington state lawmakers are considering replacing the statue of Marcus Whitman on display in the U.S. Capitol with one of Billy Frank Jr. This is a great idea to highlight our state’s history beyond the 19th century.
Each state is allowed two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection, and they range from obscure state heroes to presidents. A handful of states — embarrassingly — still have statues of Confederate leaders.
Washington honors two people who played prominent roles in the white settlement of the Pacific Northwest: Whitman and Mother Joseph, another missionary who is considered the Northwest’s first architect. But Washington’s legacy today is so much more than westward expansion and pioneering spirit. In the 20th century this state came to stand for innovation, technology and environmental stewardship.
That last virtue, environmental stewardship, makes Frank an ideal addition to the Statuary Hall Collection. Frank, who died in 2014, was a Nisqually tribal leader and environmental activist who built coalitions to save rivers and salmon habitat. He was driven not just by environmental stewardship but also by a desire to have tribal treaty rights respected. He worked tirelessly for equality, justice and environmental protections.
What better legacy for Washington to mark in the U.S. Capitol for all to see?
But if Frank gets a statue, Whitman or Mother Joseph must come down. Lawmakers have proposed Whitman.
Whitman was a doctor who settled in the Blue Mountains near Walla Walla in the 1830s. He was a Christian missionary and physician to the Cayuse tribe. In 1843, he returned from a trip east leading a large wagon train that helped establish the Oregon Trail.
Whitman’s legacy is complicated by what came next. The Cayuse Indians held him responsible for an outbreak of measles that killed many members of the tribe. The ensuing Whitman Massacre helped spark a war between settlers and the Cayuse that lasted years.
A complex history is not a disqualifier, but refreshing the state’s statues periodically makes sense. Washington doesn’t want to become New York, which is still hanging onto two mostly unknown white guys selected in the 1870s.