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Student group, professor discuss Gregori Murals

| Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) hosted a town hall Tuesday to discuss the representation of Native Americans in Luigi Gregori’s murals depicting the life of Christopher Columbus located in the Main Building. NASAND vice president, senior Armani Vaniko Porter, and professor of art history Michael Schreffler reflected on the significance of the murals and answered questions from audience members.

Schreffler said art historians would not expect 19th-century paintings to be historically accurate representations of the subjects they portray.

“It would be like sort of expecting a Hollywood film to be accurate,” Schreffler said of the murals. “What’s interesting about them certainly is the relationship between the story that is being told but at the same time, the attitudes of the people who hired the painter and the attitudes of the painter.”

The murals draw a parallel between the life of Columbus and the founding of the University, Schreffler said, and some of the paintings include figures from the University.

“In some ways it parallels the story of the University of Notre Dame as it’s conveyed, for instance, on the University website, which is also sort of an against-all-odds story — financial struggles in this undertaking, hard winters,” Schreffler said. “There were other barriers as well — the fire of 1879 [in] the administration building. So that’s how I see it. The purpose, I would say, is to construct an identity or participate in constructing an identity for the University.”

Porter said, however, that the murals send a symbolic message of oppression. The paintings’ portrayals of Native Americans is an example of this message.

“I actually took my first visit to Notre Dame after being accepted,” he said. “I remember just walking down the halls and not really having a lot of words at first. One of the first things that came out to me when I first saw it was just how strong the power differential is in every single one of these paintings. The fact that that is so heavily emphasized is the thing that stood out the most to me.”

For Porter, the murals reflect a tendency to ignore differences in students’ cultural backgrounds.

“In our fervor to make the Notre Dame community, we inadvertently homogenize and we strip away that which makes us unique or that which makes us culturally unique,” Porter said. “And that is something that is inherently oppressive to those who are of minority populations.”

During the question and answer session, Julie Dye, a member of the Pokagon band of Potawatomi Indians in Indiana who attended the town hall, said the murals portray a stereotype of Native Americans that is often promulgated in schools.

“We have a problem in this country with education from kindergarten on up … and we need to correct that,” Dye said. “This would be a good start. And by removing these murals, I’m not asking to destroy them, but remove them and put them somewhere else. Because if you just put a plaque up, you’re missing out because the visual impact of art is a big part.”

Carla Getz, who is also a member of Pokagon band, said she is also frustrated with the representation of Native Americans in the murals.

“According to all the murals and the statues, we all look like alike. We didn’t. We don’t look alike,” Getz said. “We don’t dress alike. We have things that are indigenous to our own culture, to our own tribe, and that’s all being forgotten.”

Though Porter said he believes the murals should be taken down, he said others within NASAND fear that removing the murals would erase the “true history” of Notre Dame’s relationship with Native Americans.

“We have groups that may wish to keep them up, but to have a strong and decisive explanation of what occurred … an addressing of what has occurred, what is our true history,” Porter said. “We have to come to grips with that, regardless of how embarrassing or dirty it might be or look to the administration.”

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