On April 24, Gov. Inslee signed legislation that will place a statue of tribal leader Billy Frank Jr. in the National Statuary Hall. Billy Frank Jr., a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was an environmental leader and treaty rights activist who led a grassroots campaign for fishing rights in Washington State in the 1960s and 1970s. Frank promoted cooperative management of natural resources and hosted a series of “fish-ins” through which his actions culminated in the Boldt Decision which affirmed that Washington state tribes’ were entitled to half of each year’s fish harvest.
“Billy Frank Jr.’s legacy should inspire Washingtonians to reaffirm certain truths...That the environment is not just a resource; it is our home, and we must protect it," Inslee said when signing the bill. Frank’s statue will replace Marcus Whitman as one of Washington’s two statues represented in the U.S. Capitol.
When his statue was placed in statuary hall, Whitman was praised as a “dynamic man of boundless energy” who "brought thousands into the region beyond the old frontier.” He was considered the noblest of the pioneers colonizing the West, contributing to our national expansion. But Whitman's statue in D.C. embodies Whitman's place in the mythology of the West, not the realities of his life.
In 1836 Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa established a Presbyterian mission among the Cayuse in Oregon. The purpose of the mission, like other Protestant missions of this era, was to convert the Cayuse to Christianity and to "civilize" them by requiring them to live in the American fashion. They sought to introduce European medical practices, partially to discredit the Indian medicine people and partially to ingratiate themselves with the Indian people, but their work backfired.
"Like many other missionaries of this era, the Whitmans were intolerant of Indian culture and believed it to be basically evil and under the influence of Satan. They fanatically demanded total conversion to Presbyterian ways-that is, to be a Presbyterian meant wearing American style clothing, living in a rectangular house, eating food in European style, and prepared to European taste. The Indians viewed the Whitmans as arrogant. They felt that the paternalism of Marcus Whitman was brusque and judgmental. They saw Narcissa Whitman as being cold, self-centered, and aloof. The Whitmans divided Indians into two groups: the devout (meaning Christian according to their definition of Christian) and the heathen. They often failed to understand that there were cultural differences between the different tribes."
Cayuse children enrolled at Whitmans’ mission school came down with the measles and started an epidemic. Within two months about half of the Cayuse died from measles or from accompanying dysentery. The Cayuse blamed the missionaries. Why? Because in Cayuse culture, as in many other indigenous cultures, there was a tradition that if a medicine man’s patient should die while under the care of the medicine man, the patient’s relatives had a right to seek revenge by killing the medicine man. From a Cayuse perspective, there was no question of their right to dispose of Dr. Whitman. First, patients had died under his care. More importantly, they felt that he had deliberately withheld the cure from his Cayuse patients. They reasoned that Whitman was an American healer and that measles was an American disease and therefore he would know the cure for the disease. It was felt, therefore, that he was killing Indians through an application of evil spells. As was the accepted cultural practice of the Plateau area tribes, it was necessary to protect the people from this evil by killing the practitioner. A total of 14 people were killed in the attack and 53 others, primarily women and children, were taken captive.
This story, like many others we've been told, has many different perspectives. And, the men, like all, are neither wholly perfect nor wholly evil. By replacing Marcus Whitman's statue with that of Billy Frank Jr., Washington State is recognizing the work of an environmentalist working for the common good over that of a man who insulted and mistreated and even killed Native Americans in his misguided attempts to do the right thing.
Mother Joseph Pariseau, a Canadian religious sister, who led a group of the members of her congregation to the Northwest where they established a network of schools and healthcare to service the American settlers in that new and remote part of the country, is the other person recognized with a statue representing Washington State in the U.S. Capitol. Mother Joseph’s statue was placed in 1980. Replicas of both statues are in the Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia.*