Walla Walla has a fascinating history, which I first started researching in 1992 because I was interested in creating a statue honoring the area’s Native Americans.  Many places in our valley bear Indian names, including Walla Walla itself which refers to the many waters coursing through the area.  But there were no monuments to Indians as there were for members of other groups, including Christopher Columbus, Marcus Whitman, a Spanish American War veteran, and a local fireman, an omission I wanted to correct.

 The questions I was asking myself were whom to feature as the subject, whom to select as the artist, and how to deal with issues of cost and location.   As to a subject, I wondered if there was a specific historical figure it would be appropriate to honor, or if a more generic symbol of the local tribes would be better.

Among the Cayuse and Walla Walla whose homelands included the Walla Walla Valley, the clear choice for an historic figure seemed to be Walla Walla Chief Peopeomoxmox (Yellowbird), a respected and outspoken leader at the Walla Walla Treaty Council of 1855, who was killed by the Oregon Mounted Volunteers militia later that year during the Battle of Walla Walla after he had approached them under a white flag of truce.  Both his life and death offer an interesting parallel to Marcus Whitman’s, since both sought peaceful relations with the other’s people, and both were ultimately murdered by them. In exploring this with local historians and people I knew on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, which includes the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, some wanted to see a Cayuse leader featured while most felt that Peopeomoxmox was the best choice. 

In 1997, I learned that Jim Irwin of Walla Walla had also been working on the idea of a Peopeomoxmox statue.  Jim was a local businessman and art dealer whose involvement with local veterans groups resulted in the creation of a statue of General Jonathan Wainwright placed in the center of the Fort Walla Walla parade grounds, now the US Veterans Medical Center.  Jim wanted Roger McGee, the Walla Walla artist who did the Wainwright statue, to also do one of Peopeomoxmox to be placed in a prominent location somewhere in the city.  

I was excited by this, and offered to help.  As a result we incorporated Walla Walla Historic Memorials in 2003 as a non-profit, tax-exempt organization to raise funds and to contract with Roger.  Our goal was to complete the project and be able to unveil the statue on June 10, 2005, the 150th anniversary of the culmination of the Walla Walla Treaty Council and the signing of the treaties establishing the Umatilla, Yakima, and Nez Perce Indian reservations. 

Three portraits of Peopeomoxmox had been made during his lifetime, two of which were still available.  Utilizing these together with his own inspiration, Roger created a miniature to show current Walla Walla Chief Carl Sampson and his family for comment and corrections.  Carl, a direct descendant of Chief Peopeomoxmox, was very pleased with the miniature and gave it his blessing.  With the family’s approval, we began raising funds to have the piece enlarged by artist Nano Lopez, to prepare it for casting.  In addition to a grant from the Sherwood Trust and other fundraising efforts, we organized a cultural celebration, auction, and dinner at the Walla Walla fairgrounds, which was a big success.  Carl’s son, Donald Sampson, was the CEO of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation at that time, and served as the master of ceremonies, while other Sampson family members took charge of the dinner. 

For placement of the statue which is called Yellowbird Returns, we identified several prominent intersections, but finally reached an agreement between the City of Walla Walla and the US Army Corps of Engineers to put it at a plaza over Mill Creek on the grounds of the Corps’ Walla Walla headquarters and across the street from both the Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center and city hall, with the City becoming the owner of the statue and responsible for its maintenance. 

On the base of the statue we affixed four bronze plaques which I drafted honoring Peopeomoxmox, the local Tribes, the Walla Walla Treaty Council, and our donors.  The text of the plaque honoring the Tribes reads:

The Walla Walla Valley is the homeland of the Cayuse and Walla Walla Tribes.  The Walla Wallas, whose villages were in the lower valley near the Columbia, were described by Lewis & Clark as “the most hospitable, honest, and sincere people that we have met with on our voyage.” Near their fishery site at Wallula the Northwest Fur Company built the first trading post in the inland region, Fort Nez Perce, which later became the Hudson Bay Company’s Fort Walla Walla.         

The Cayuse Indians were known as expert horsemen and breeders of strong ponies, as well as for their ferocity in battle. Gov. Isaac Stevens wrote at the Walla Walla Treaty Council, “The haughty carriage of these (Cayuse) chiefs and their manly character have, for the first time in my Indian experience, realized the description of the writers of fiction.” 

The plaque honoring the treaty council states: 

Just east of this site from May 29 to June 11, 1855, a great treaty council was held between Governor Isaac Stevens of Washington Territory, Superintendent of Indian Affairs Joel Palmer of Oregon Territory, and many of the upper Columbia and Snake River Indian tribes.  Several thousand Indians were present.  It is said that in its general importance and difficulty the Walla Walla Council has never been equaled by any council held with the Indian tribes of the United States. The Council resulted in three treaties establishing the Yakama, Nez Perce, and Umatilla Indian Reservations, and the ceding of all remaining tribal lands to the United States. The treaties continue in effect to this day, providing important protections for the Tribes, as well as for immigrants and their descendants.         

In addition to our formal unveiling ceremony involving the Tribes, the Corps, city officials and other dignitaries for which I served as MC, additional sesquicentennial observances included a powwow and ceremonies at the VA Medical Center sponsored by another nonprofit we organized, Walla Walla Treaty Council Days, involving representatives of all regional tribes.  We also presented a series of  living history performances at Fort Walla Walla Museum that included appearances by Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens played admirably by Ron Klicker, and Oregon Superintendent of Indian Affairs Joel Palmer, a Quaker whom I portrayed.

Excerpted from “A Privileged Life-Memoirs of an Activist” by Daniel N. Clark