One of the first things I remember from my first week at Whitman was walking in to the Maxey Museum and seeing “The Whitman Legend” by Kay Neilsen. It is my favorite kind of painting, rich with images and symbols, and ripe for analysis. We were told of the complicated history of the Whitmans, both their pioneering ways that paved the way for the statehood of Oregon and later Washington, and the devastation they wrought upon the local peoples due to harmful settler colonialism. Being at Whitman with this legacy encourages us to examine closely our privileges and positions of power as students able to be here and as an institution. When my fellow Religious Studies major, Grace, approached me with the proposition to work as an archival research intern for Tamastslikt Cultural Institute– a local center of native research, advocacy, and education– I was excited to take this opportunity to continue to investigate our role as current Whitties in the face of such a complex past.
Grace and I have been working closely in the archives to unearth the truth surrounding what really precipitated the Whitman Massacre, and the accuracy of details and assumptions we have been operating under for the past 150+ years. I spend a lot of my afternoons in the Whitman Archives, pouring over letters, diaries, and other contemporary documents, trying to piece together a timeline and map of disease and interaction around the time of the Massacre. I’ve learned a lot throughout the course of this research thus far, from disease theory and how inoculation works to the politics of missionaries and supply chains from the American Board of Foreign Missionaries that employed the Whitmans. Plus, I feel like I’ve really gotten to know Marcus and Narcissa through their own letters, their own hands. I’m excited to further engage with them and understand how they ended up both idolized and demonized by all who came after them, and gain a better understanding of what it means to be a Whitman student– and hopefully share that too!
As this is a year-long position, with thanks to the Whitman Internship Grant and Tamastslikt’s continued support of this project, I’ll be working on assembling some sort of display of the information we have uncovered over the next semester. I’m looking forward to helping more people understand and accept our history here and coming up with inclusive and creative ways of negotiating our role in the future as parts of the Whitman, local, and global communities we live in!