Some Statues Tell Lies. This One Tells the TruthBreaking News
tags: memorials, public history, Marcus Whitman, Billy Frank Jr., Capitol Statuary
The United States is in a muddle over how to tell our history, stuck between an aggressive revisionism that would leave few commemorative statues standing, and a stubborn clinging to all the founding myths, no matter how odious or inaccurate.
It’s shameful that a mob fringe has even come for Abraham Lincoln. His statue was torn down by extremists in Portland, Ore., last fall.
But there’s some good news on this front: Washington State has chosen to immortalize Billy Frank Jr., a Native American truth-teller, genuine hero and role model, who died in 2014, at the U.S. Capitol in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
Replacing the statue of Marcus Whitman, an inept Protestant missionary who tried to Christianize the natives (as Whitman might have put it), with a Native American who was arrested more than 50 times for practicing his treaty rights to fish for salmon is a karmic boomerang. Statues, especially those in the sacred space holding the Capitol’s collection, where each state is given only two, are national narratives set in stone.
This move should upset no one, except perhaps former Senator Rick Santorum, who had this to say a few days ago: “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean there was nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
Mr. Santorum’s pockets are so full of ignorance there isn’t room to stuff a tissue of truth in there. I could tell him that Mr. Frank’s people, the Coast Salish, gave the world stunning artwork on totem poles, canoes and in longhouses — art as original as cubism.
I could tell him about the Presidential Medal of Freedom awarded Mr. Frank, a leader of the Nisqually tribe, during the Obama administration, or how his struggle led to a monumental 1974 federal court ruling on resource equality known as the Boldt decision, awarding his people 50 percent of the salmon in their waters.
But I’d prefer just to give him a taste of the man. “I never gave up,” he once told me. “Getting beat up, my tires slashed, shot at, arrested, cursed, cussed, spit on. You name it. I still don’t hate anyone.”
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