The Kowalkowski Years (1971-1980): Interpretation



The most obvious and far-reaching change in the interpretive program was the experimentation with "living history" through the use of cultural demonstrations. "We are trying to make history come alive," stated Chief Park Interpreter Larry Waldron in 1972. [155] Four volunteers were recruited that year just to demonstrate the pioneer skill of spinning wool. Pioneer cultural demonstrations continued each year and by 1979 included wool-spinning, adobe brick-making, wool-dyeing, candle-dipping, soap-making, and "nooning on the Oregon Trail." [156] During the summer of 1975 Ron Marvin, a Washington State University teaching assistant, was hired to play the role of an immigrant on the Oregon Trail. [157] In 1978 June Cummins was hired permanently to demonstrate pioneer skills. Kowalkowski's cultural demonstration programs lasted beyond his administration and remain a stable part of the mission's interpretive program today.

Progress presenting a more balanced view of the Whitmans' eleven years at Waiilatpu was made when Native American demonstrations were developed early in Kowalkowski's administration. In the 1972 Annual Report Kowalkowski wrote:

For the first time, members of the Confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation participated in the Park's interpretive efforts . . . . Two all-day programs were presented and included displays of traditional Indian food and handicrafts; and scheduled lectures on Indian religion, history, and lifestyle. [158]

This small achievement was the first of many such weekend programs designed to promote awareness of Native American heritage and culture. Efforts to recognize the Indians continued in 1973 when the National Park Service's Museum Division at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, sent Ike Ingraham, Architect-Designer, and Bob Nichols, Museum Planner, to study the possibility of revising the park's approach to the Whitman story. [159] For the first time, the theme "clash of cultures" was presented as a viable option to the park's "heroic pioneer" interpretation. These proposals reflected a changing attitude toward Native American interpretation from both regional and national Park Service administrators.

Though plans to update the museum were postponed in 1976, strides continued toward more balanced interpretation. The passage by congress on August 11, 1978, of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (PL 95-341), which made it the policy of the United States to "protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions" resulted in re-examination of Whitman's interpretive program. [160] By 1979, the park had a "Statement for Native American Cultural Interpretation." Many of the suggestions in this statement--performing Native American cultural demonstrations regularly, establishing a Native American weekend, and recruiting of a Native American employee--were instituted during the subsequent administration; nevertheless, the impetus for more balanced interpretation was the 1971-1980 administration.

In addition to the pioneer and Indian cultural demonstrations, another permanent addition to the park's interpretive program occurred in 1975. In honor of the Nation's Bicentennial, the park's cooperating association--the Waiilatpu Historical Association--financed the building of a covered wagon. Melvin DeWitt, head of farming operations at the University of Idaho, was awarded a $5,200 contract and completed the wagon by May 1975. As Kowalkowski stated in his 1975 annual report:

1975 was the year of the wagon at Whitman Mission . . . . The wagon became an integral part of our interpretive program. It was placed on the Oregon Trail with interpreters in period dress giving demonstrations of pioneer life and talking about the Whitman story. [161]

In addition to the wagon, DeWitt and Chief Park Interpreter Larry Waldron made a movie of the wagon's construction called "A Memory Retrieved," funded by Walla Walla's Baker Boyer Bank and shown for the first time in 1977. [162] The mission's prairie schooner wagon continues to be an integral part of the interpretive program today.

The audiovisual project initiated by John Jensen in 1965 was finally completed in 1977. The Harpers Ferry Service Center completed "The Whitman Saga," the nine-minute sound/slide program long-needed at the park. [163]

Finally, the adobe First House exhibit, originally established by Superintendent Weldon in 1954, was dismantled in 1978. In order to preserve the adobe, it was determined that the display would have to be covered. Therefore, the adobe exhibit was: "Removed with much care and earth was gently spread over adobe blocks until such time that adobe can be exposed without deterioration." [164]

Thus ended the only exhibit ever to display any part of the original mission buildings.

In general, the years 1971-1980 were well described by Kowalkowski: the progress of previous years was maintained. Yet the significant interpretive expansion and inclusion of Native American culture was an important contribution unique to Kowalkowski's administration. When asked what accomplishment made him most proud, Mr. Kowalkowski responded: "I'm interested in people. Whatever we did to encourage people to come visit us was the most important thing." [165]

Since Whitman Mission's interpretive program made great strides under Stan Kowalkowski, the next superintendent sought to improve other areas of the park.


Last updated: March 1, 2015

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