SPOKANE — A new Washingtonian will soon be honored in the nation’s Capitol.
On Thursday, state and tribal officials announced that an artist had been selected to design a statue of Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal member and legendary activist for environmental protections and treaty rights who died in 2014.
When completed, the likeness of Frank Jr. will head to the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, where it will replace a bronze bust depicting 19th-century missionary and pioneer Marcus Whitman as a man of the American frontier, with Bible in one hand and saddle bags in the other.
National Statuary Hall was established in 1864 in the U.S. Capitol and contains 100 statues, two from each of the 50 states.
After more than a year of deliberations facilitated by the state Arts Commission, Seattle artist Haiying Wu was selected to design the statue.
“The worship of life and nature in Indian culture is in line with my own cultural traditions,” Wu said in a press release. “I am honored to have this opportunity to understand more of the spiritual world of Indigenous people, and of their efforts to preserve the beautiful skies, rivers, oceans and all living things that we have today.”
Born in China, Wu attended Sichuan Fine Arts Institute and worked as a sculptor creating public artworks in Chengdu, capital of the Sichuan province. Wu emigrated to the United States and received his Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from the University of Washington in Seattle.
Today, Wu’s work can be found around the Pacific Northwest, including the Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Once celebrated as a healer and martyr to Manifest Destiny, Whitman’s legacy has faced increasing scrutiny in recent years for his role in opening the West to the expansion of white settlers and for bringing measles to the region’s Indigenous peoples.
Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, helped establish what would become the town of Walla Walla, before they were accused of poisoning hundreds of indigenous inhabitants and were killed by a band of Cayuse.
One hundred and five years after his death, a bronze statue of Whitman was erected in the nation’s Capitol. Alongside a likeness of Mother Joseph of the Secret Heart, Whitman’s statue represents Washington state’s contribution to the pantheon of Americans memorialized in National Statuary Hall.
Two other copies of the statue were later created, including one presiding over the entrance of the state Capitol in Olympia and another in Walla Walla near the prestigious liberal arts college that bears his name. All three are being considered for removal.
Whitman’s buckskin-clad likeness, created by artist Avard Fairbanks, has been criticized as depicting a myth and not a man. In 2020, a group of local art researchers associated with Whitman College called for the Walla Walla statue to be removed and relocated to the Fort Walla Walla Museum, where it could be presented with historical context.
“The statue tells us a lot, and it has a rich and fascinating history, but again, that history is not the history of Marcus Whitman, it is not the history of the Walla Walla Valley, and it’s not the history of Whitman College,” Libby Miller, director of Whitman College’s Maxey Museum and art history professor, said during a 2020 meeting deliberating the fate of the statue in Walla Walla.
In Walla Walla, where the Whitman statue has been vandalized repeatedly in recent years, efforts to remove that statue have slowly moved forward. Any final decision on the statue’s fate will be made by the Walla Walla City Council.
After a stalled 2019 attempt by state legislators to replace both the D.C. and Olympia statues, a bill focused solely on the version in the U.S. Capitol passed overwhelmingly in 2021. Whitman’s contribution to the creation of the state of Washington was “profound and important,” wrote the bill’s authors, but it was time to celebrate a “more contemporary Washingtonian…”
Frank Jr. was a well-known fighter for indigenous treaty rights, facing arrest more than 50 times during his activism demanding that state and federal governments respect fishing rights that had been enshrined by treaty and then subsequently trampled. His activism led to “The Boldt Decision,” a 1974 ruling that reaffirmed and greatly expanded the rights of Washington’s tribes to fish in accustomed places.
In 2015, a year after Frank Jr. died at age 83, he was posthumously awarded the presidential medal of freedom by then-President Barack Obama.
Six years later, the legislature approved the formation of the Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee. Wu’s design is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, and the final statue is tentatively anticipated to be placed in statuary hall by the end of 2024.
No tax dollars will be used for the design or sculpting of the statue. Instead, the committee is also tasked with raising those funds from private donors.
Though the bill authorizing the committee only refers to replacing the bronze of Whitman in Washington D.C., its members have also been eyeing the copy in Washington’s state Capitol. Additional funds would need to be raised to accomplish this goal, however, and its unclear whether the committee is authorized to make such a proposal.
Willie Frank III, Tribal Chair of the Nisqually Tribe and son of Billy Frank Jr., took a lead role on the committee to select an artist that would honor his father.
“I am confident that Mr. Wu is going to draw visitors to Statuary Hall to my father’s likeness and make them want to know more,” Frank III said in Thursday’s press release. “My dad always said, ‘Tell your story.’ This gives us a chance to tell the Nisqually story and bring some of that Billy magic to life in Washington, D.C.”