Written by

What does it mean to know a place? It’s a question that Whitman College grapples with introducing to incoming new students each year during orientation. The orientation planners work to provide programming that gives an introduction to the Walla Walla Valley — originally called Pasxapa, or Place of the Wild Sunflowers, by the Cayuse tribe — and Whitman College that acknowledges and informs incoming students of the human history of the area.

These programs have become an important element of not only Whitman’s orientation experience, but also the goals of the college to encourage the entire Whitman community to acknowledge and intellectually explore the complicated history of its location and name.

“We sought in the orientation experience not to present the land or the experience as some kind of commodity, rather as a place with living breathing human beings,” said Kazi Joshua, Dean of Students and vice president for Student Affairs. “This is not just history of past, but history of present. It is not an artifact, but rather a demand about how we might live in ways that are mutually beneficial, not only with the local community, but with those who live in Indian Country.” 

Continuing Influence of History

During last fall's orientation, which ran Aug. 29 through Sept. 2, first-year students participated in a rotation of presentations discussing the various aspects of regional history and how it influences our community. 

Chuck Sams, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), encouraged the students to learn about the regional tribes and the history of the college, and to remember, “each of you have a chance to be original; each of you has the chance to grow here; each of you has a chance to make this your home.”

Sams, who is Cayuse, Walla Walla, Cocopah and Yankton Sioux, is the communications director for CTUIR and has been a speaker for the event since it began in 2016.

During another presentation ending on the steps of the Memorial Building, students of Whitman’s Indigenous People’s Education and Culture Club (IPECC) informed students of the history of the building, built in 1899 and named for missionary Marcus Whitman.

“It is our duty to engage in dialogue with one another as students of this college. It is more important to recognize and take action than to feel guilty,” said Nick Jacuk ’20. Student leaders of IPECC encouraged the first-years to take a moment to reflect on their racial and ethnic background and how it has been part of history. 

Wenix Red Elk, education and outreach specialist for the CTUIR Department of Natural Resources, introduced the incoming students to the natural aspects of the region, the traditional first foods found here, and how the environment connects with Native culture. As she introduced herself, Red Elk explained that her name signifies the echoing sounds through mountain canyons as they vibrate off the ground.

“I am doing exactly what my name means — they say that when you take an old name, you take on the actions of what that name means,” Red Elk pointed out, referring to her teaching of CTUIR first foods practices to the first-year students. Red Elk had the students say the words for the five main foods. “Water – Cúús, Salmon-Núsux, Deer-Yáamas, Cous-Xáws, Huckleberry-Wíwnu” the students repeated in unison.

Red Elk explained how the CTUIR’s government is structured around first foods. The tribe harvests, trains, teaches, feasts and celebrates the first foods to encourage sustainability. The importance of acknowledging the needs of future generations of people, food and animals is taken into consideration, she said. 

“We restore for seven generations out, because we will always be here and our children will always be here,” explained Red Elk. “Gathering food is a holy practice. When you go out in that land and gather, your body lights up. You pick in a certain way and you harvest in a certain way so that it comes back better next year. We teach that to our children. We are not us without these foods, that is our foundation, our creation, we are everyone of us because of these foods.” 

After learning about the importance of first foods, the students got to experience a meal made with them. The menu included salmon and huckleberry, bison with wild blueberries, and fry bread. The meal was prepared by the college’s food service provider, BonAppetit, with consultation on the menu from tribal experts.

Red Elk and Sams joined students for dinner, answering questions as the students processed all that they had learned about the land, the tribes and the college’s history.

Working Together to Tell the History

The opportunity to delve into the history of the region continued with college-sponsored trips to the Whitman Mission historic site. On the first two Fridays of the semester, students toured the mission with their residence hall sections. Resident Director of Lyman House Anna Ballew ‘18 stressed the importance to her residents of “understanding the history of their new home” as they walked the paths around the mission.

One of the Lyman residents, Jeff Mutethia ‘23, was very curious about the different ways the stories of the Whitman mission are told and have been told by Native Americans, the National Park Service, Walla Walla residents, and the college. He said the presentations on campus by Red Elk and Sams helped him add another perspective to his own understanding of the area as he toured the mission.

“We don’t use the word massacre here anymore,” said Stephanie Martin, the Park Ranger giving the presentation to Lyman House residents at the Whitman Mission. “Thirty people died in the Cayuse village and 11 died here, there was a lot of death on both sides. All of us are working together to tell the history of the Walla Walla Valley. I think the history is better told today that it ever was.” 

As the new student orientation activities continue to be developed to find the best way to welcome students to the area, the importance of history and place will not be left out.

“We believe that we are not only giving an education to intellectuals and scholars, but that we are giving an education to citizens,” Joshua said. “This event therefore begins to function really as an introduction to what we would hope is a lifelong inquiry that encompasses the first of the four years of experience here.”