Blaine Harden’s book “Murder at the Mission: A Frontier Killing, Its Legacy of Lies, and the Taking of the American West” is dedicated to “The Tribes of the Columbia Plateau,” but it tells a story important for every American, especially those of us who live in the Northwest.
A student in the first class I taught at Blue Mountain Community College wrote about the impact of the Whitman Mission story on his own life. On the school bus ride home from the traditional fourth grade field trip to the monument, he got in a fight with a non-Native classmate who taunted him about his Cayuse heritage.
Now the story told to visitors at the Whitman Monument has been modified, but when I hear people complaining that if schools discuss racism some nonminority children might feel “discomfort,” I think of my own student and the impact of that field trip on his grade school years.
Harden’s book probes the missionary story to its uncomfortable roots. We locals know the story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman — or think we do — and why some Cayuse men attacked and killed the Whitmans after 197 people who had taken the doctor’s medicine died (about half of their tribe at that time) and after it was clear that they were threatened with loss of their own land. We know about the trial in Oregon City, the five warriors who were hung; sacrificed, one of them explained, to save their people.
Some of us are aware of the terrible price the Cayuse had been paying and would continue to pay for the decision of a few, the suffering inflicted by volunteers and soldiers as they hunted down anyone they could find. I’ll never forget the poem Althea Huesties Wolf read at First Draft describing a grandmother’s memory of children’s frozen bodies hanging in brush where they had been tossed.
But Harden’s research taught me much about this story that I hadn’t known. Apparently there was so much infighting among these Calvinist missionaries — Whitman and Spalding and their supporters — that the board decided to end both missions. Whitman made an arduous solo journey East to persuade the board to reconsider, thus saving his and Spalding’s jobs.
However, the story taught in history books for decades was the one Spalding spent his remaining years trying to convince newspapers and eventually Congress to believe: that Whitman had made that journey to save America from the British.
Totally untrue, says Harden — and inspired mostly by Spalding’s intense hatred of Catholics, against whom the anti-immigrant feeling of his era was directed. But popular “histories” echoed this Manifest Destiny version of what had happened: Oliver W. Nixon’s book “How Whitman Saved Oregon” was subtitled “A True Romance of Patriotic Heroism, Christian Devotion, and Final Martyrdom.”
Clearly, it was a history told by the victors, and a story with echoes of today’s nativist views and fear of the effects of truth. And definitely a story of might makes right: In 1848 an official statement declared the Cayuse land “forfeited by them, and justly subject to be occupied and held by American citizens.”
Harden’s book, though, ends on a happier note, stressing not only survival but the resurgence of the contemporary Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — stemming from rights their leaders preserved in the 1855 treaty and from an address to Congress by President Richard Nixon in the summer of 1970 “to create the conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”
Harden focuses on the work of tribal leaders whose names we recognize — William and Antone Minthorn, Les Minthorn, Bobbie Conner, Judge Bill Johnson — whose careful land use planning and legal work prepared the way for the recovery of water and fish, for Wildhorse Resort & Casino and a working economy for the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla people.
What about Whitman College, whose longest serving president saved the school from early bankruptcy by spreading Spalding’s patriotic lie? Daring to trust students with the truth, a 2017 exhibit asked them to “think carefully about the appropriateness of any monument to the Whitmans — including the college itself.”