The Interpretive Program: Part 4


In order to present both the Indians and the Whitmans in proper perspective, a new interpretive theme was developed. By 1974, the idea "Conflict of Two Cultures," which compared and contrasted the Indians and pioneers, was the park's new interpretive theme. The theme was used first in the coloring book, "Life in Old Oregon: Two Paths," written by Larry Waldron, and then through the pioneer and Indian demonstrations. Since the museum did not reflect the new theme, planning began in 1973 to integrate the entire program around this "Cultures in Conflict" theme.

On July 11, 1973, Senior Staff Curator Robert G. Johnsson of the Division of Museums, Harpers Ferry Center, developed a museum proposal based on the two cultures theme:

The objective of the new exhibits will be to contrast the material cultures of the pioneer white society with that of the Cayuse (Nez Perce) . . . . The exhibits will show the profound differences between these two cultures and . . . they will also illuminate the philosophical gulf . . . .

A second objective . . . will be to demonstrate . . . the inevitability of white expansion into Indian land. Taken as a whole, then, the exhibits will help the visitor understand the background which led to the ultimate hostility and violence at Waiilatpu . . . [the visitor] will see the Whitman story as a special case of the general problem of the confrontation of two divergent cultures. [46]

Superintendent Kowalkowski responded positively to this initial proposal, "A comparison of the material cultures of the Indian and the pioneer white society is a logical use of the museum media." [47] Yet, Kowalkowski maintained that designing a slide show to tell the Whitman chronology was first priority, revising the museum, second. [48] Johnsson specified that the museum would convey concepts not easily portrayed in the brief chronology. [49] This new outlook recognized that the Whitman story required a two-sided presentation that was not simply chronological but thematic as well. Inherent in this two-sided treatment was the necessity of carefully evaluating and representing each culture. While seemingly clear, the introduction of the Indian perspective cast confusion and doubt over exactly how to interpret both the Whitmans and the Cayuse. This conflict was felt deeply by the mission staff and museum designers, resulting in several unsuccessful museum plans.

The first conceptual plan prepared by Robert Nichols, museum planner, and Ike Ingram, architect-designer, concluded that highlighting the Cayuse mobility against the settler's permanence was the best way to compare and contrast cultures. [50] Their March 1975 plan reflected this theme: "Needless to say, the nomadic Indian culture and the settled farm life of the Whitmans were light years apart." [51] The plan compared religion, medicine, and subsistence methods of the Cayuse and the Whitmans. The Indian quotations were reactions to the "strange ways" of the missionaries while the Whitman quotations centered around tension and frustration. Though it emphasized "Cultures in Conflict" this museum plan was revised twice; each time rejected for a variety of reasons.

One major complaint with the initial March 1975 plan was that the Indian quotes were often not from the Cayuse. In addition there was no mention of the Whitmans' death on November 29, 1847, yet Tiloukaikt and Tomahas were shown next to a picture of the crucifixion. [52] Although Superintendent Kowalkowski supported the conflict of cultures theme, he believed this plan ignored the park's enabling legislation. He commented to the Regional Director:

During the past three years at Whitman Mission we have involved Indians in our interpretive program . . . . But we have always tried to keep our Congressional mandate in mind and have kept the Whitmans the main thrust of our interpretive program.

The present museum study while representing much work, creativity, and deep thought, is weighted toward the Cayuse Indian. [53]


Kowalkowski acknowledged that Indian programs and participation was a rewarding experience for the public but indicated that increased emphasis on the Cayuse would be adverse to community relations: "This is a conservative part of the state and the early missionaries and pioneers are admired." [54] Acting Regional Director Edward J. Kurtz summarized the general reaction to the museum plan to Marc Sagan, Manager, Harpers Ferry Center:

The proposed plan is a drastic departure from the one now in existence. The Whitmans are now presented as faultless. The new plan shows them as being very human and relates some serious errors on their part. This is as it should be. However, we do not feel that a strong shift toward emphasizing the Cayuse Indian is desirable. Whitman Mission National Historic Site was established to commemorate the Whitmans and their interrelation with other forces of which the Cayuse Indian was certainly a very important one. The major thrust of the total interpretive program should be the Whitmans. [55]

Kurtz conveyed the obligation he and Superintendent Kowalkowski had to honor the park's enabling legislation while at the same time recognizing that a fair and honest portrayal of both the Whitmans and Cayuse was desirable. Their perception was that the museum favored the Cayuse which was unacceptable in light of the above criteria. Therefore, to balance the museum, a revised plan was submitted in August 1975, and then again in March 1976.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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