The Interpretive Program: Part 5


The final March 1976 plan presented an inevitable cultural conflict, "With cultures and traditions light years apart, was the clash between nomadic Indian and settled farmer inevitable?" [56] while interpreting the Whitmans' task as futile: "Unfortunately, they did not recognize the incongruity of impressing that culture upon the Cayuse . . . ." [57] Rather than explaining the Whitmans in context of nineteenth-century America, the proposal evaluated the missionary effort: ". . . In retrospect it is realized that the nineteenth century missionary effort was a mixed blessing to the native peoples." [58] Again, most quotes emphasized conflict and misunderstanding.

This final museum plan evoked strong reaction from Superintendent Kowalkowski who objected to the portrayal of both the Whitmans and the Cayuse: "The Whitmans come out looking, at best, stupid, and at worst, criminal; the Cayuse do not come out much better." [59] Frustrated with the museum's direction, Kowalkowski felt, "Perhaps the best course would be to drop the project. " [60] Within a month the museum project was deferred "for two to three years" while other interpretive needs in the Region took higher priority. [61] In effect, the museum planners failed to design a museum that portrayed both cultures sensitively. It was difficult to balance the Whitmans' human qualities against an enabling legislation that denoted them as "martyrs" to be "memorialized." It was equally difficult to present the Cayuse beliefs without romanticizing their simpler way of life. While the museum planners failed to acceptably portray the "Conflict of Two Cultures" theme, the rest of the interpretive program realized more success.

In 1977, Harpers Ferry finished a slide show called "The Whitman Saga" that presented the two-sided story as the museum had not. The Whitmans were characterized as "extra-ordinary people with drive and determination" yet with "human failings, too." The Cayuse perception of their changing world was noted, "The flood of settlers passing through upset the Cayuse, who feared the emigrants might take their land." Finally, the significance of the uprising on both cultures was explained: "The uprising was a disaster for the Cayuse who were driven into two years of hiding before surrendering five members for hanging," while it was the Whitmans' tragedy "to be misunderstood both by those they came to help and by history." The Whitmans were interpreted as sincere Christians, "inspired to serve mankind" who "in death may have accomplished more than in life." [62] "The Whitman Saga" reflects the type of interpretive approach desired during the late 1970s. The differing views of white and red man were explored although the emphasis was clearly the Whitmans, sympathetically portrayed. Thus, the slide show satisfied both the legislative mandate and the new Indian cultural awareness. The new wayside exhibits, installed in 1978, reflected the same awareness. Care was taken to ensure unbiased audio messages and exhibit copy. For example, the mission house included two panels--one about the mission activities, another about the Whitmans' deaths. In the audio script, the word "murdered" was changed to "killed." The slide show, wayside exhibits, and special Indian cultural days combined to achieve what the new museum plan had failed to do--present a culturally sensitive interpretive program within the perimeters of the park's enabling legislation.

Three unsuccessful museum plans indicate that it was not easy to achieve a balanced interpretive program. It was difficult to foster Indian participation given that most Cayuse, Walla Walla, and Umatilla Indians of the Umatilla Indian Reservation had neither visited the park nor been asked to participate in its programs before 1972. Superintendent Kowalkowski understood their hesitancy: "The Indians, if they had an idea of what had happened . . . might have animosity toward Whitman Mission. And those that were willing to come over here and share--are they simply forgetting about what happened before?" [63]


The park's "Two Cultures" theme depended upon good relations between the park and the reservation which took several years to build.

In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (Public Law 95-341) resulted in a reevaluation of relations between the National Park Service and Native Americans. The results at the park included a Cayuse cultural weekend, employing Indians both seasonally and permanently, and drafting a Statement for Native American Interpretation--sections of which were later used in the Park's Interpretive Statement. The Statement for Native American Interpretation says, in part: "If the Park Service is to do its job well, it must deal with this history in a sensitive, balanced but un-watered down manner. It will take our best efforts in the future." [64]

Indeed, a great effort was required, and was given, during the 1970s to establish a more culturally sensitive and balanced program. Yet, by 1980, Chief Park Interpreter Dave McGinnis still believed more of the Indian story needed telling. [65] The most logical way to further the Indian story was through the museum which still presented the viewpoint of the 1960s interpretive program. Therefore, an effort was once again made to bring the museum up to standard, beginning with a new conceptual plan, approved in 1983. The new conceptual plan, prepared by Harpers Ferry Staff Curator Gary Roth and Designer Dick Brown, presented the "Cultures in Conflict" theme symbolically. Regional Director Daniel J. Tobin described their idea:

The design for the new museum is a significant departure from the conventional, with a primary dependence on conveying to the visitor a quick grasp of the symbolism employed. The central theme of the proposed exhibitory is two columns of figures--Indians and Whites--moving on a collision course toward opposite diagonal corners of the room, where their respective futures will be symbolically depicted. [66]

Superintendent Amdor called the design, "a novel approach to a very difficult story" but advised that consultation with the Native Americans was necessary for the project's credibility. [67] Again, like Superintendent Kowalkowski, Amdor cautioned, "The Park's enabling legislation requires that we 'memorialize' the Whitmans. It is imperative that we balance the story between the two cultures." [68] Regional Director Tobin did not feel the "Cultures in Conflict" theme would preclude compliance with the enabling legislation but neither did he anticipate "that the language of the enabling act should be repeated in any museum exhibit." [69] The exhibit planners were, once again, confronted with the interpretation established by the enabling legislation and the interpretation established by the park during the 1970s--each of which reflected two very different viewpoints. Therefore, the topics presented for the museum in July 1984 included The Whitman Mission, Cayuse Beginnings, U. S. in Early 1800s, Oregon is a State, Two Cultures, and the lifesize Cayuse and Pioneer figures. [70]

By January 1985 planning stalled. Superintendent Amdor noted to Deputy Regional Director William Briggle that Harpers Ferry planners had visited the Park three times, yet nothing was finalized: "We get one more chance in January to agree on the design . . . . A signed formal agreement must be reached at that meeting, or the project fails." [71] The plan finally presented by Harpers Ferry Staff Curator Jim Mount to Superintendent Amdor and regional representatives in 1985 was approved except for a few changes which included: additional theme statements, reducing the size of "manifest destiny" while increasing the size of the Whitman story, addressing the Whitmans' deaths, and finally, increasing "the dramatics in the center exhibit, by arranging the figures in an interactive posture." [72] Otherwise, the exhibit plan submitted in May 1985 was essentially the one constructed for the museum from May-July 1987 by SEE Design of Salem, Oregon, and supervised by Ron Roos of Harpers Ferry.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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