The statue of Marcus Whitman, the physician and missionary who established a mission nearly 200 years ago just west of what is now the city of Walla Walla, stands on the edge of campus of Whitman College. The question right now: for how long?

Whitman has come under renewed scrutiny in recent years for his role in the colonization of the region, helping to establish the Oregon Trail and the introduction of a measles outbreak that killed native peoples. In 2019, a vandal defaced the statue with spray paint, misspelling the word “genocide” on its base.

Other members of the community oppose removing the statue, arguing that doing so would erase the legacy of a founding father of the region who sought to heal the sick.

At a Walla Walla Arts Commission meeting last Wednesday, the issue was front and center. The session came after a request from Emily Tillotson, a professor at Walla Walla University, to remove the statue.

The process, which allows a city resident to request reconsideration of any piece of public art owned by the city, was created to respond to complaints about the statue of Whitman, Deputy City Manager Elizabeth Chamberlain previously told the Union-Bulletin.

The Arts Commission will meet again in March to consider a recommendation to the City Council. The Walla Walla City Council will then have final say over the statue’s fate.

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In 2020, a local team of art researchers proposed removing the statue of Whitman and moving it to Fort Walla Walla Museum.

“The statue tells us a lot, and it has a rich and fascinating history, but again, that history is not the history of Marcus Whitman, it is not the history of the Walla Walla Valley, and it’s not the history of Whitman College,” Libby Miller, director of Whitman College’s Maxey Museum and art history professor, said during a September 2020 Walla Walla city Arts Commission meeting.

The statue, Miller and her team argued, does not represent the historical figure, a medical missionary from the 1800s. While Miller noted in an interview that she has since learned Whitman did on at least one occasion wear buckskins, it was not his typical style of dress, but appeared to be chosen by the artist to honor a symbolic representation of “frontier mythology.”

Arguments against statue

During the Arts Commission meeting, Whitman College professor Stan Thayne, speaking on his own behalf, compared this depiction to the fictional monument of Jebediah Springfield on The Simpsons.

“My point here is that the coonskin cap frontiersman is a generic form of monumentalization of every-town America,” Thayne said. “Every town has their coonskin cap frontiersman, violent killer who went and did the dirty work of the town to kind of clear the way so that white settlers could come settle there.”

Tillotson, speaking also on her own behalf Wednesday, said she, too, favored removing the statue and potentially placing it in a museum. She argued against conceptions that monuments are meant to be permanent, stating that the first monument to be removed in the United States was a statue of King George III in 1776.

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“Folks are still digging up pieces of King George in their gardens in lower Manhattan,” Tillotson said. “Monuments are symbols of what we value as a community, and they should change and grow with us.”

Joy Garcia, a licensed clinical social worker serving as a therapist at Yellowhawk Tribal Center for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, argued the statue’s continued presence prolongs historic trauma against the region’s Indigenous peoples.

The CTUIR’s website states that Whitman was killed in 1847 by a band of Cayuse, along with some of their Umatilla and Nez Perce allies, for a number of reasons, including for stealing native property, encouraging the increase of immigration and the belief that Whitman, a physician, had poisoned native peoples.

Support for statue

Marcia Wendler argued at the meeting for keeping the statue in place. Whitman was a renowned physician, she said, who “answered every call of the distressed and sick, no matter the distance, the time, the day or his own weariness.”

Susan Schomburg, who served on the Santa Monica Arts Committee in California for more than a decade and who opened an art gallery there in 2001, also opposes removal.

Schomburg argued the statue, which she said is the oldest in the city’s public art collection, is currently accessible to all, but placing it in a museum would create a financial barrier to viewing it.

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The debate around depictions of Whitman has paralleled debates nationwide over other statues, including those of Christopher Columbus (one of which sits on the Walla Walla County Courthouse lawn), Confederate soldiers and generals, and other controversial historical figures.

In an interview, Schomburg drew a distinction.

“He’s not like Confederate soldiers,” Schomburg said. “I understand why those statues are being removed. I feel that those statues deserve to be removed. But Marcus Whitman did not enslave people, and he didn’t deliberately kill people.”

In an online petition started by Schomburg in 2020, signed by more than 1,350 people, she argued that rather than remove the statue, another statue should be placed nearby that would honor the legacy of the region’s tribes.

Schomburg also expressed concern with what she saw as flaws in the research done by Miller and her students, which Schomburg argued helped to spur the current debate. Miller failed to reach out to descendants of Avard T. Fairbanks, the statue’s sculptor, Schomburg said.

“She would have had primary resources on the research that Fairbanks referred to in creating the statue of Marcus Whitman,” Schomburg said.

Miller said in an interview that the public did not have access to every piece of research material her students used in their project, and that the research project was not about the artist, but the art.

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Theresa Fairbanks-Harris, a descendant of the sculptor who was an art history lecturer and senior conservator of paper for the Yale Center of British Art Center, doesn’t want the statue moved. She advocated for including additional artwork that could honor the legacy of the region’s Indigenous peoples.

“I’d prefer to see effort being put into getting into Indigenous peoples sculpture opposed to tearing down other sculpture. I mean, that’s a much more joyful, inclusive thing,” said Fairbanks-Harris.

“But this is more like a crusade.”

Conflicts of interest?

Washington State University professor Eric Johnson called into question the propriety of the Arts Commission meeting, saying during the session that a number of members had a conflict of interest and should be recused from any final recommendation.

Commission member Hannah Bartman, said Johnson should recuse herself because she is a member of the advocacy group We Belong Walla Walla, which has called for removing the Christopher Columbus statue at the County Courthouse.

He also questioned whether another two members of the commission who work at Whitman College could be expected to deliver an unbiased recommendation because of the political climate at the school.

The school has made several steps over the years to remove iconography and names that some may find offensive, he said, such as changing the name of the college newspaper from The Pioneer to the Whitman Wire, or changing the name of the school’s mascot from the Missionaries to the Blues.

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“To oppose the removal of the statue would risk academic promotions and scorn from fellow faculty and students,” Johnson said. “It is impossible for Whitman College-employed members of the Arts Commission to be impartial, regarding the Marcus Whitman statue, as their livelihood may be dependent upon the outcome of that recommendation.”

However, none of those factors legally constitute conflict of interest or violate state and city laws regarding the appearance of fairness, according to Chamberlain.

She reiterated that the Arts Commission does not make a final decision on the fate of the statue, as that power rests with the Walla Walla City Council.