Tom Banse, OPB, April 15, 2021
In a time of reckoning about historical monuments, Washington state lawmakers found a bipartisan path to change out a prominent statue. A bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday begins the process of putting a statue of the late tribal treaty rights activist Billy Frank Jr. in the U.S. Capitol.
The Frank statue would replace one of Oregon Trail pioneer Marcus Whitman. The larger-than-life bronze of Whitman has stood in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall for nearly 70 years.
Each state is allowed to represent itself on Capitol Hill by contributing two bronze or marble historical figures to the national statuary collection.
“We expect to send our best from the state of Washington to be memorialized in the United States Capitol in Statuary Hall,” said Inslee at the bill signing ceremony. “We can’t send the Nisqually River or Mount Rainier, but we can send Billy Frank Jr.”
The legislative prime sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, shepherded the bill with a strategy of extolling Frank and never speaking ill of Whitman. Thus, she and her allies avoided antagonizing admirers of the missionary Whitman, whose name adorns landmarks across the Pacific Northwest including many schools, streets, a luxury hotel, a college, a county in Eastern Washington, a national forest in Oregon and a glacier on Mount Rainier.
“Billy is a new representative of Washington state to tell the history of what we are today and where we will be in the future,” said Lekanoff, who is the sole Native American currently serving in the state House.
Legislative support to replace the Whitman statue with one of Frank bridged party lines. The vote in the state House of Representatives was 92-5 followed by passage in the state Senate on a 44-5 vote.
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.
The newly signed legislation directs the governor to transfer the Whitman statue to Walla Walla County once it is removed from the U.S. Capitol. The county is home to the Whitman Mission National Historic Site. The board of county commissioners will have to decide where to put the statue then.
The odd thing about the handover provision is that Walla Walla already has an identical copy of the Marcus Whitman statue. It sits outdoors on a pedestal facing Main Street at the edge of the Whitman College campus. As sculpted by Avard Fairbanks, the buckskin-clad missionary and frontier doctor strikes a heroic pose with Bible in one hand and saddlebags in the other.
The existing Whitman statue in Walla Walla has been repeatedly vandalized with graffiti and red paint and is the target of an ongoing campaign to be removed. An online petition asserts that the monument celebrates “a history of racialized oppression” and is unworthy of civic honor.
A third copy of the Marcus Whitman statue stands in an alcove inside the Washington State Capitol about 120 feet away from the door to Inslee’s office. The legislation signed by the governor Wednesday is silent about what, if anything, should happen to this monumental casting.
Lekanoff said she had a follow up bill in mind for a future legislative session which would seek to accomplish a similar statue swap of the buff bronze under the state Capitol dome.