The Interpretive Program: Part 7
The visitors' experience has changed drastically at Whitman Mission over the last 46 years. From the makeshift storage shed-museum, to the new visitor center, to a sophisticated $200,000 museum exhibit, the visitor facilities and interpretive emphasis have changed although the story remains essentially the same.
The Whitman story has always sparked controversy. Ever since William H. Gray lauded Whitman a "noble and self-sacrificing martyr" (1874) and Edward Bourne lamented Whitman's "extra-ordinary growth of fame after death" (1901), the interpretive debate has raged. Significantly, the park was organized at a time in the debate when the Whitmans were viewed as "martyrs," "massacred" by the Indians. For years the language of this enabling legislation and its interpretation was taken for granted. The park's first two museums adhered closely to the legislation as did Interpretive Statements and other planning documents of the time. It was not until 1972, when "the Indian side of the story" became an issue, that the ramifications of this legislation were re-examined.
The influence of the Indian Freedom of Religion Act and the Civil Rights Act were among the factors that resulted in (1) a realization that the Cayuse needed to be included in the interpretive program and (2) an unwillingness to go too far in implementing this first objective. The 1976 goal, "to present a balanced interpretive program,"  while admirable was incompatible with the standard interpretation of the park's legislation at that time. The Indian programs, although educational and enjoyable, seemed to deviate from the park's mandate to "memorialize" the Whitmans. Therefore, the Indian programs continued but were viewed in opposition to the legislative mandate rather than in harmony with the mandate.
By 1982, a broader interpretation of the legislative mandate gained acceptance. Native American participation was viewed as a necessary component of an interpretive program designed to meet the legislative demands. Basically, the definition of "the Whitman story" was broadened to mean not the Whitmans alone, but rather the Whitmans and Cayuse together. Thus, the new museum exhibits attempt to present a more complex and thought-provoking Whitman story than ever before.
By treating the park's enabling legislation as a flexible document, administrators have met the public need while remaining committed to the park goals. By remaining flexible, the interpretive theme will continue to meet the challenges of the future and remain relevant to all people.
Last updated: March 1, 2015