The Interpretive Program: Part 3


Park Historian Thompson's revision of the 1959 Museum Prospectus reflected this new interpretation. The Whitmans exemplified "selflessness, zeal, and . . . sacrifice for an ideal." [27] While the Prospectus recognized the Whitmans' struggle, it also recognized the Indians' plight:

Although the mission ended in failure . . . the Whitmans died doing what they believed to be right . . . . Also, the Cayuse should not be shown as "murderers" but as people using their own methods to preserve their way of life. [28]

Although the Prospectus acknowledged the Indian, the Cayuse were little more than the people for whom the Whitmans sacrificed. The Whitmans' ministry was still of lesser import than their perseverance to develop an undeveloped land. [29]


While the new museum was under construction, the temporary museum exhibits were changed and rearranged in 1962. The exhibit cases included The Trip West, the Place of the Rye Grass, Missions and Missionaries, Cayuse Indians, The Oregon Trail, the Mission Children, Home Life at the Mission, and The Massacre. [30] These exhibits provided a focus until the new museum was complete. After 1957 the administrative offices were moved from the temporary museum to a house trailer and then to the old Frazier farm house--one quarter mile away. While this move freed space in the small museum, it was still inconvenient as Historian Thompson noted in 1962: "When unscheduled tour groups arrived, the interpreter had to dash to his car, drive hurriedly to the entrance gate . . . and attempt to start the guided tour before the group had spread itself over the trail." [31]

Such inconveniences were abated with the opening of the new visitor center in 1963.

The 1963 museum clearly reflected the current interpretive theme. The museum plan was developed by Museum Specialist, Western Museum Laboratory, Leland Abel and Assistant Chief Floyd A. LaFayette [32] in consultation with Regional Historian Hussey, Superintendent Kennedy, Historian Thompson, and Regional Chief of Interpretation Gale. The museum contained 22 exhibits [33] arranged in chronological order to portray the flow of events from the early traders and trappers through the establishment of the territorial government in 1848. In this manner the museum reflected a two-fold purpose; first, to explain northwest expansion and the Whitmans' role in it, and second, to interpret the Whitmans' religious mission as a noble and admirable commitment, worthy of respect. Finally, the museum's interpretive theme was summarized in the lobby statement of significance: "So long as men admire unfaltering courage and sacrifice for others, will the story of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman be cherished." [34]

The museum remained the same for 23 years, although the Whitman story was subject to changing interpretations because of its strong emotional appeal. The 1960s and 1970s were no different except that a new side was introduced into the debate--that of the Cayuse. In true "Whitman Saved Oregon" tradition, an Oregonian article from as late as 1965 called Marcus Whitman a visionary, aware that "Americans had a jewel in their hands" and determined to keep that jewel (Oregon) for the United States. [35] In contrast, during the mid-1960s Whitman College students became less interested in Marcus and Narcissa. Due to dwindling interest and open hostility, the freshman class's annual visit to the park halted in 1967. [36] In 1973, Superintendent Kowalkowski defended the Whitmans against growing accusations: "Too often the Whitmans get blamed for the eventual fate of the Cayuse, when in fact the settler would have come with or without the missionaries." [37] By 1975, Chief Park Interpreter Larry Waldron commented that: "Two years ago I noticed a certain cynicism among some of our visitors, a feeling that the Whitmans were meddling where they didn't belong and deserved their martyrs fate. I don't notice that much anymore." [38]

Why all this criticism and then why did it seem to subside? The answer to these questions lies in yet another interpretation of the Whitmans.


One possible explanation for the strong criticism of the Whitmans was the new awareness of minority rights occurring in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. Passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 challenged established world views and replaced them with new outlooks and ideas. While the civil rights movement dealt primarily with black rights, a heightened awareness of all minority cultures, including Native Americans, surfaced. Superintendent Kowalkowski noted this trend in 1975: "During the 1970s there has been a wave of sympathy for the American Indian in this country." [39] As a result, the Cayuse were praised for their culture, the Whitmans criticized for theirs.

Another possible explanation for the cynicism perceived by Larry Waldron was the cynicism felt as a result of the Vietnam War. By the end of U. S. involvement in Vietnam in 1973, many people believed the U. S. had no reason for fighting in Vietnam; we were meddling in places we did not belong. Similarly, people might also interpret the Whitmans as meddling where they did not belong and question the merits of their crusade.

Certainly, prior to 1972, the park's interpretive program did not address any of these new concerns and ideas. Other than broadening interpretation "to stimulate environmental awareness to the average Park visitor," [40] management goals did not change substantially from 1964-1971. The only interpretive change in the 1964 Master Plan reflected a concern for religious freedom:"Sectarian issues are not to be interpreted . . . [because] the Whitman story is interpreted to pertain to all Americans." [41] Ironically, the Whitman story did not "pertain to all Americans" and would not until the Cayuse achieved a more prominent place in the park's interpretive program. Thus, the inclusion of Indians into the program in 1972 caused a pivotal change in interpretive philosophy.

By 1972, Chief Park Interpreter Larry Waldron acknowledged a marked interest in the Cayuse Indians:

There has been considerable interest expressed among the visitors to Whitman Mission about the Cayuse Indians. We get many inquiries concerning the present status of the Cayuse and whether there is "anything to see" on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. [42]

Because of this public interest and National Park Service Director Hartzog's encouragement of Indian involvement, [43] Waldron developed a program designed "to see the life style of the Indians stressed, hopefully to create empathy between them and the visitors." [44] Reactions to this first program, which included Indian food, dancing, drumming, and lectures, was favorable:

We have received positive responses--some concerning the program itself and some just with the idea of involving Indians . . . the important thing is that the ice is broken and Indian involvement can continue in its proper perspective. [45]


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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