Whitman College decides to drop Missionary mascot

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Posted: Apr 23, 2016 1:32 PM
Whitman College decides to drop Missionary mascot

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Whitman College, a private, liberal arts school located in the rolling hills of Walla Walla, Washington, has dumped its long-time mascot.

Whitman teams will no longer be called the Missionaries, a reference to Marcus and Narcissa Whitman who came to the Walla Walla Valley in 1836 and were massacred a decade later.

Campus officials said Missionaries' mascot was considered non-inclusive, imperialistic and incorrectly implied that Whitman was a religious school.

It also was not terribly intimidating and often mocked. The old name was officially retired in early April and now the school is working to select a new mascot in the fall, Whitman spokeswoman Gina Ohnstad said.

Some alumni aren't happy.

"If the sports teams and the school didn't feel the name was fearsome enough, then change it," said Graham G. Storey, class of 1995, who is now a high school teacher in Juneau, Alaska. "But the given justification for changing the mascot is a misguided act of atonement to make up for some perceived imperialistic stain that Marcus Whitman engaged in 180 years ago."

Whitman was an important historical figure, Storey said. His statue is one of two that Washington state has in the U.S. Capitol National Statuary Hall.

Those who feel the word Missionary is offensive must logically push to change the name of the college, Storey said.

"As far as my future with the college is concerned; I am done," Storey said. "No more donations."

The college, whose sports teams compete in NCAA Division III, has no intention of changing its name, president Kathleen Murray said.

Most people connected with the college welcomed the change. Many didn't even use the old nickname, Ohnstad said, preferring the name "Whitties" instead.

Efforts to drop the Missionaries name have been underway for decades, she said.

"There are always going to be people who feel strongly about the past," Ohnstad said. "But we have really, really supportive alumni."

While the NFL's Washington Redskins have resisted appeals to change its name and mascot, efforts to remove college team mascots and imagery that are deemed offensive have been ongoing for decades.

Walla Walla is tucked into the southeast corner of Washington, far from the state's population centers. Whitman was founded in 1882 and has about 1,500 undergraduates. It is considered one of the nation's top liberal arts colleges. Famous alumni include former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and "Batman" star Adam West.

The college was named for the Whitmans, who arrived in the area in 1836 and started a mission to bring the Christian religion to the Cayuse Indians.

Eventually, settlers poured into the region. Following the deaths of nearly all the Cayuse children and half the adults from a measles epidemic in 1847, the Cayuse killed the Whitmans and about a dozen other settlers in what became known as the Whitman Massacre.

The administration conducted a survey of more than 18,000 alumni, students and community members last winter. More than 7,100 responded. Of those, 62 percent supported the change, 29 percent did not and 9 percent had no opinion.

Among those who wanted to keep the mascot, there was criticism that the change was the result of pressure to be politically correct, the survey found.

"Now that our community has spoken, we are going to work to create a new, official mascot for everyone to celebrate," Murray said in a recent letter to the community.

Some alumni expressed concern that a change of mascot will result in a loss of history for the college. In response, Whitman plans to add programming to new student orientation to instill a greater understanding of the Whitmans.

"While important, we all know that the mascot is not Whitman College's defining element," Murray said.