On covering the Columbus murals
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, January 24, 2019
Bozho. Zada Ballew ndezhnëkas. Bodwéwadmi ndaw mina pëgėgneniyêk nedebéndagwes.
Hello. My name is Zada Ballew. I am a member of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians.
I write this today to offer my sincerest thanks and support to Fr. Jenkins for deciding to cover the Columbus murals. I would also like to share two stories about what this decision means to me and to my communities.
Five years ago, I was a prospective student touring Notre Dame for the first time. I am the first in my family to go to college, and Notre Dame has always been my dream school. On my mother’s side, my great grandmother spent the majority of her life cleaning dorms at Notre Dame. On my father’s side, nearly all of his family are enrolled members of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. I am very much aware of the historic relationship between the Pokagon and Notre Dame, and I wanted nothing more than to attend the school on land that my people had once inhabited.
As I walked up the stairs of the golden dome for the first time with my parents, I was excited, nervous and thrilled by the thought of potentially gaining admission to a school that has been such a pivotal part of my family’s shared history.
My hopeful and anxious demeanor quickly shifted as my parents and I walked to the office of admissions. Upon entering the main hallway, my father and I were immediately confronted with murals of Native peoples’ original conqueror: Christopher Columbus. At his feet were unidentified Natives that were depicted in perfect health and had traveled to foreign lands. There was no mention of the names of these people (the now extinct, Arawaks), no hint at Columbus’s motivation for exploiting the land and its people, nor acknowledgment at the possibility of there being two sides to this supposedly straight-forward history. Although I ultimately decided to continue my life-long goal of attending Notre Dame, I was certain that other American Indians would feel strongly about this issue.
Fast forward to the spring semester of my junior year. I had the privilege of meeting approximately twenty eighth graders from the Blackfeet Nation (Browning, Mont.). These students attend the De La Salle Blackfeet School, a member school of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network (a branch of ACE). Every year, the graduating eighth graders can choose to visit anywhere in the United States for their class trip, and each year they decide to take a train to Notre Dame. For many of them, Notre Dame is also their dream school. When I met them, I saw that same excitement and thrill that I had had when I first toured Notre Dame.
During their visit, I had the opportunity to give them a tour of ND’s campus. Our first stop was, of course, the golden dome. The moment we stepped into the main hallway of the second floor, the originally chatty students fell silent. I knew that this would be quite a jarring experience for them. After looking at each of the murals, I asked them to document their feelings toward the murals on paper. Some responses were as follows:
“This is bad because people don’t know the true story if they don’t know the history behind [the murals].”
“Ashamed that this country celebrates a man who did mass genocide against Native people.”
“Sad and angry.”
“I would tell [Fr. Jenkins] the other parts of the story and why the murals were up. I would also say that there was a war and Columbus wanted gold.”
“The feeling of lost hope.”
On behalf of myself, and the countless other American Indians that have walked the halls of the main building, I thank you for your commitment to justice and your willingness to stand up for those on the margins.
Zada Ballew (Pokégnek Bodéwadmik)
Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.