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Proposed statue swap of Billy Frank for Marcus Whitman signals changing of the guard

A statue of tribal rights activist Billy Frank Jr., left, could someday replace pioneer missionary Marcus Whitman in the U.S. Capitol.
NWIFC, 2007/Glenn Drosendahl
A statue of tribal rights activist Billy Frank Jr., left, could someday replace pioneer missionary Marcus Whitman in the U.S. Capitol.

Leaders of seven Pacific Northwest tribes testified this week in favor of replacing a statue of Oregon Trail pioneer and missionary Marcus Whitman in the U.S. Capitol. A proposal pending in the Washington Legislature would install a statue of the late Native rights activist Billy Frank Jr. in Whitman's place of honor.

Every U.S. state gets to choose two prominent figures to put in the National Statuary Hall Collection. In the early 1950s, Washington state delivered a larger-than-life bronze of Marcus Whitman. As sculpted by Avard Fairbanks, the buckskin-clad Presbyterian missionary and frontier doctor strikes a heroic pose with Bible in one hand and saddlebags in the other.

Now comes Democratic state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, who is Native American. She told her fellow lawmakers it is time for a statue swap out.

"Whitman's contributions to the creation of Washington were profound and important," says the bill Lekanoff sponsored. "Whitman has represented the state in the statuary hall for nearly 70 years. The legislature finds that it is appropriate to replace his statue with one of a more contemporary Washingtonian to further celebrate the state and the continuous contributions Washingtonians have made in the 20th and 21st centuries."

Lekanoff and 31 co-sponsors in the state House propose to substitute tribal treaty fishing rights champion Billy Frank in Whitman's place.

"During this time of equity, during this time of diversity, during this time of finding balance among our communities, there is no one better than Billy Frank Jr., who stood with all of you," Lekanoff told the State Government and Tribal Relations Committee in a short speech that had the cadences of an animated preacher.

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff explained her proposal to place a statue of Billy Frank Jr. in the U.S. Capitol during a virtual legislative committee hearing on February 1, 2021.
Credit Courtesy of TVW
Courtesy of TVW
State Rep. Debra Lekanoff explained her proposal to place a statue of Billy Frank Jr. in the U.S. Capitol during a virtual legislative committee hearing on February 1, 2021.

During the initial hearing on the proposal, neither Lekanoff, nor Lt. Gov. Denny Heck who followed her, nor the seven tribal leaders who came next spoke Marcus Whitman's name -- not even once. They focused entirely on why Billy Frank deserves the honor of standing in bronze in the nation's capital.

"He pulled us together," testified Kat Brigham, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. "He made us think about the future, about our children's children and how we need to protect our tribal treaty rights. He was great in that. All of us loved him. All of us loved working with him."

Billy Frank died in 2014 at the age of 83. In his younger years, the Nisqually tribal member was a self-described "getting arrested guy’" at treaty rights protests. In later decades, he became a widely admired advocate for Northwest salmon and natural resource protection.

No one spoke in opposition to the proposed U.S. Capitol statue swap during a nearly hour-long state House committee discussion on Monday.

Historical reckoning for the Whitmans

Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa helped lead one of the first wagon trains into the Oregon Country in 1836. The establishment of the Whitman Mission in the Walla Walla Valley — followed by his family's death about a decade later during an attack by a Cayuse band — ushered in waves of additional settlers and then soldiers, all of which upended the lifeways of the indigenous people.

Author Cassandra Tate of Seattle recently published a new book called Unsettled Ground about the legacy of the Whitman Mission. Tate said what attracted her to the topic was how much the reputations of the Whitmans have evolved in her lifetime.

"In the story I grew up with, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were these brave, compassionate people who came west to bring enlightenment," Tate said in an interview. "She was beautiful. He was strong and handsome. They were brutally killed, brutally murdered by the people they had come to save."

A lot has changed since Tate was in fifth grade.

"By the 1990s and beyond, there was a lot of dissection of that image to the point where now in some quarters they are considered these agents of genocide and white colonization," Tate continued.

"The halo has slipped," Tate said before suggesting the Whitman statue would fit well in a display of fallen heroes.

"I don't think that's the best we've got now," Tate concluded. "His moment has come and gone."

Lekanoff's bill gives Washington's governor the responsibility to figure out where to relocate Marcus Whitman's statue if and when it is removed from the U.S. Capitol. Washington state's other contribution to the Capitol's statues depicts a kneeling Mother Joseph, a 19th century Catholic nun who founded hospitals and schools. No one seems to have a problem with her.

Oregon's two statues on Capitol Hill have the potential to raise similar issues as Whitman's as they honor the "Father of Oregon" John McLoughlin and pioneer missionary Jason Lee.

Nine other states have previously swapped out their marble or bronze representation among the Capitol's statues. At Virginia's request, Confederate general Robert E. Lee was removed in December. North Carolina leaders are nearly ready to replace the statue of a race-baiting former governor, Charles Aycock, with a life-like statue of the evangelist Rev. Billy Graham.

Parallel reckoning in Walla Walla

There is another casting of the oversized Whitman statue displayed in Walla Walla at the edge of the Whitman College campus. It has been repeatedly vandalized with graffiti and red paint. The Walla Walla City Council awaits a recommendation from the city Arts Commission about the future of this outdoor statue.

Two of sculptor Fairbanks' sons wrote the mayor and city council last fall to say they were shocked and disappointed to learn there is pressure to retire the monumental statue.

"The current anti-history craze with removal of statues of prominent people in history is absurd and should not apply to Marcus Whitman," said Grant Fairbanks in a letter to the editor submitted from his home in Salt Lake City.

A third exemplar of the Whitman bronze occupies a prominent spot inside the domed Washington capitol in Olympia. The pending bill in the state legislature is silent about this statue.

Separate legislation moving ahead in Olympia this winter would strengthen the penalty for defacing a public historical monument. The Republican-sponsored proposal originally would have elevated this crime from a misdemeanor to a felony. Majority Democrats on the Senate Law & Justice Committee amended the measure to dial back the increased penalty to a gross misdemeanor before passing it out of committee on an 8-1 vote last Thursday.

"This bill would help make a better deterrent to protect our monuments," said Republican state Sen. Jim McCune, the prime sponsor. "These important historical monuments teach all Washingtonians our great history."

Copyright 2021 Northwest News Network

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.
Tom Banse
Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.