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Take down the murals

| Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fr. Jenkins’ decision to cover the Columbus murals in the Main Building came as a surprise of mixed feelings in my email inbox this past weekend. As The Observer has reported, students and staff over the years have called for the removal of the murals depicting the Italian explorer, arguing that the installation in Notre Dame’s Main Building — arguably the university’s most recognizable landmark — painted Columbus as a savior to Native Americans, despite well-documented history to the contrary. Perhaps Jenkins was spurred to action by the viral video of white, Catholic high school students at the March for Life mocking an older, Native American drummer, an especially jarring encounter given that it’s Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. Who knows?

In any case, what’s important to remember is that Columbus was a violent killer. To glorify him in any way is morally and ethically wrong, and particularly at odds with the ethos Notre Dame espouses. In their delirious search for gold and other riches, Columbus and his crew enslaved thousands of Native Americans in the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, mutilated their bodies and decimated the native population — within 60 years of Columbus’ arrival, only 500 of the 300,000 Carib natives were alive, according to Laurence Bergreen, author of the biography “Columbus: The Four Voyages.” Under his regime, settlers even sexually trafficked young girls. Columbus’s claim to fame — being the first European to reach the Americas — is also under dispute, as credible theories say Leif Eriksson and his band of Viking explorers reached North America 500 years before him. In keeping with a shift in popular awareness about his crimes, cities and states across the country no longer celebrate Columbus Day and instead honor Indigenous people on that day, while countries in Latin America have done the same in recent years.

While Father Jenkins’ decision is a move in the right direction, the correct thing to do is to remove the murals entirely, and not leave room to “display the murals on occasion,” as Jenkins says in his letter to students and staff. Though I’m no expert on mural removal, I surmise that Notre Dame has deep enough pockets to successfully excise the artwork and put something new in its place rather than simply cover it. And if that’s not possible, then perhaps the best thing to do is either paint over them or take them off, regardless of potential damage. The murals are an enduring symbol of white supremacy and Native genocide, a symbol whose ideological content trumps any aesthetic value that may merit its staying up. The murals should come down.

Oliver Ortega

Ph.D. student

Jan. 21

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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