A statue of Dr. Marcus Whitman has stood on display in National Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol for almost 70 years. Now, Washington state legislators are proposing to swap it out with another Northwestern icon: Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank Jr.
The beloved environmental activist fought for the state to honor treaty fishing rights, becoming one of the foremost Native American leaders in the nation.
Frank, who died in 2014 at the age of 83, was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
On Monday, Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Skagit Valley, who is a member of the Tlingit tribe and currently the only Native American woman in the Legislature, brought forward House Bill 1372 to request the statue swap.
“There’s no one better than Billy Frank Jr, who stood with all of you,” she told the House State Government & Tribal Committee Monday. “He has stood in the rural areas of western Washington and watched the rivers flow. … He has stood in almost every one of your rivers and wished for the salmon to come home.”
States can have up to two statues representing them at the nation’s Capitol. Washington added a statue of Mother Joseph Pariseau, an architect and humanitarian who provided services to Washington settlers, to the National Statuary Hall Collection in 1980.
Eight states have replaced their statues, most recently Nebraska, which replaced its statue of William Jennings Bryan with one of Chief Standing Bear in 2019. Now, Whitman’s complicated legacy is being addressed.
Whitman, a physician and early white settler of the Northwest, founded a mission near present-day Walla Walla to convert the local Cayuse tribe to Christianity in the 1840s. His expedition on the Oregon Trail paved the way for an influx of westward expansion.
After an outbreak of measles devastated the Cayuse, some tribal members held the doctor responsible for the deaths of their people, and killed the Whitmans and other settlers at the mission, according to historical accounts. The “Whitman Massacre,” along with further white encroachment, precipitated the Cayuse War, which lasted until 1855.
Whitman is also commemorated by Whitman County and Whitman College in Walla Walla. In 1999, Washington declared Sept. 4 as “Marcus Whitman Day,” though it is not a legal holiday. Washington state donated the Whitman statue to the National Statuary Hall Collection in 1953.
Lekanoff said the effort to change statues has more to do with honoring Frank and less to do with singling out Whitman.
“Frank brings the rich history of the last 60 years,” Lekanoff said, and provides an accurate reflection of what Washington state is. She said Washingtonians are living through a time of change, and his statue is “a recognition of how far we’ve come together and who brings us together.”
“In the ’40s, that was a time of then,” she said. “In the year 2021, we are a time of now.”
Should the bill meet final approval, the Whitman statue will be moved to a location that will be decided by Gov. Jay Inslee. An identical statue currently sits on the Whitman College campus.
The bill’s supporters said Frank’s fight to preserve a way of life benefited every Washingtonian by helping to protect the state’s natural resources.
Later in life, he fought for habitat protection in Olympia and Washington, D.C. He served as chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for nearly 30 years.
Lt. Gov. Denny Heck called Frank “perhaps the greatest consensus builder and peacemaker ever” around the environmental issues of cool, clean water, healthy salmon runs and preserving natural resources.
Heck, who often walked through National Statuary Hall during his years in Congress, said that if the statue of Frank is erected, “every single time any person from Washington visits our nation’s Capitol, they will stop, they will look up, and they will stand tall and proud because Billy Frank was a great man.”