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Observer Editorial: Mural decision demonstrates power of advocacy

| Friday, January 25, 2019

On Monday, Notre Dame kicked off its fourth-annual “Walk the Walk” week. According to the University, this week, starting the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, is meant to make members of the Notre Dame community “consider how we — both individually and collectively — might take an active role in making Notre Dame even more welcoming and inclusive.”

One of the ways in which Notre Dame students have been taking this active role in shaping the world has been through consistent advocacy over the decades, from marches on Main Building in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War to students this past weekend who attended the Women’s March and the March for Life in Washington.

But one call to action deserves special recognition this week. For more than 20 years, groups of motivated students have challenged the University’s decision to continue displaying Luis Gregori’s murals of Christopher Columbus in the Main Building.

Their work has finally paid off. On Sunday, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced that the murals would be covered up by “woven material consistent with the decor of the space.” In addition to covering up the murals, the University will “create a permanent display for high-quality, high-resolution images of the murals in a campus setting to be determined,” he said.

The Observer Editorial Board understands that this course of action is, by nature, controversial. Such is the nature of activism, and the proposed solution has left some — on both sides of the political aisle — feeling discontent. Nevertheless, we applaud the work of the generations of Notre Dame students who have taken to heart the impetus to build community through action; to “Walk the Walk.”

Gregori’s murals, painted in the late 1880s on the walls of the Main Building, have long offended members of the Notre Dame community, especially those with Native American heritage, as Gregori depicts the Native Americans in the paintings in a historically inaccurate manner that takes away from the human dignity of Native American peoples. As a result, student groups have been advocating for the removal of the murals since as early as 1995.

According to an Oct. 31 article published that year in The Observer, members of the Native American Student Association at Notre Dame (NASA-ND) called on the University to remove the murals “because they show Native Americans as members of a culture inferior to that of Western Europeans.” This advocacy continued throughout the fall of 1995 and into the spring of 1996, when the University decided to add a pamphlet that placed the paintings in their historical context, addressed the problematic names of some of the murals and promised to exhibit more diverse artwork on campus.

However, many members of NASA-ND and other members of our community felt this to be an incomplete measure and have continued to push for the removal of these murals ever since. On Nov. 29, 2017, NASA-ND held a “Native American Representation Town Hall,” and in March 2018 the student senate passed a resolution urging the administration to remove the murals. Most recently, in December 2017, members of the Michiana chapter of the Rising Tide activism — not associated with the University in any way — unfurled a banner in Hesburgh Library, proclaiming, “This is Potawatomi land! F— the KKKolumbus murals.”

These students and activists have displayed a consistent commitment to ensuring Native Americans have a stake in telling their own story and aren’t defined by narratives outside of their control. The legacy of their activism truly embodies Dr. King’s assertion that, “The time is always ripe to do right.”

We thank these groups for their inspiring example — recent movements at Notre Dame to advocate for topics ranging from defending Title IX to implementing a campus-wide internet filter have shown that students of many different beliefs are not afraid to stand up for their values. And, as the Columbus decision proves, a commitment to dialogue and advocacy does have tangible results. Furthermore, we call on the University to make sure to authentically listen to its students, the ones who carry in their hearts the University’s mission of promoting human dignity. Only then will we ensure that the years of advocacy and hard work do not go to waste.

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