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, Oregon, 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 Sen. 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.”
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 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 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% 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.”
Frank was an evolved soul. If culture is an expression of our refined and uplifting impulses, he spread many ripples in the heritage of humanity. He’ll join Dwight Eisenhower, Samuel Adams, Helen Keller as well as several other Native Americans in the Capitol not because it’s <em>his turn. </em>But because his life exemplifies the best values of a nation’s shared stories.
“The people need to know the truth,” he used to say, by way of explaining an 1854 treaty between the tribes of Puget Sound and the U.S. government that guaranteed tribal fishing rights for eternity. The <em>truth</em> — that should be the crucible, as we look anew at our history.
Lincoln was not perfect, and Billy Frank Jr. never claimed moral infallibility.
But in their public lives, these men moved the nation to higher ground. The same cannot be said of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, a man who was indicted on a charge of treason, and another traitor, his vice president, Alexander Stephens — both of whom are still in Statuary Hall, even after waging war on the United States. Stephens said the Confederacy was founded “upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”
That pair should join the recently removed statue of Robert E. Lee in the dark closet of our history.
Marcus Whitman, the man Frank will replace in the Capitol after a bipartisan majority of the Washington state Legislature voted for the switch, was also not someone to look up to. Whitman was murdered by Cayuse Indians in 1847, near present-day Walla Walla, in the midst of a lethal measles outbreak.
“Whitman was a mediocre man of his era, not a hero,” said Blaine Harden, author of the terrific new book, “Murder at the Mission,” a deconstruction of the tired falsehood of the Whitman story.
The outgoing statue of Whitman in buckskin and a Bible is a totem to the Big Lie that he saved the Oregon Country from the British, a founding myth of the Pacific Northwest.
“It was the kind of lie that many Americans still love — simple, hero-driven, action-packed, ordained by God,” Harden told me. “Replacing Marcus Whitman with Billy Frank Jr. is sweet symbolic justice.”
I went down to the wildlife refuge named for Frank the other day to get a little booster shot of nature. The sky was crowded with bald eagles and the estuary thick with red-flowering currants and peripatetic hummingbirds— all within the noise of Interstate 5, about 50 miles south of Seattle.
But I also wanted to summon the spirit of the man I knew as just Billy — his guts, his wisdom, his unbroken big heartedness.
“Being with Billy is like floating on a steady, easy river,” his wife Sue Crystal, who died of cancer in 2001, once said. “He’s the happiest person I know.”
That’s what I remember about him — the joy in pursuit of justice.
Timothy Egan is a columnist for The New York Times.