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Perpetrator of genocide or Catholic hero?  

| Wednesday, February 6, 2019

University President Fr. John Jenkins’s decision to cover the offensive and demeaning murals in the Main Building depicting the conquest and genocide of Christopher Columbus is a wonderful step in the right direction toward acknowledging the actuality of American and Catholic history, as well as respecting every student and person who steps foot on our campus.

The pushback this decision has received, however, is emblematic of the wrong type of freedom advocated for by many on campus and throughout America. The idea that we have the fundamental right to idolize all historical figures in publicly-accessed spaces, no matter what they may have done, in an effort to acknowledge the totality of history.

This is fundamentally wrong. Columbus committed a genocide against the native people who resided in the land that he invaded. Within 60 years of Columbus landing in the Caribbean, only a few hundred Taino native people were left on their island, where they had previously numbered 250,000. Columbus forced them into labor and servitude, while others were murdered or died from disease brought by the crew. In the Dominican Republic, Columbus issued a harsh crackdown on a revolt of the native people, protesting the terrible conditions, which resulted in many of their deaths.

In terms of his role as an emblematic Catholic, rather than bringing Christianity, and Catholicism specifically, to America, he forced it upon the people, leaving them little option but to follow. Why is this who we look toward as the hero and figure for Catholics who faced persecution in America? Is there no one better? Isn’t this the larger question that we should be asking?

This is not the type of freedom of thought and expression that we should be fighting for. This type of freedom, while allowing some people to express their views, completely disregards the valid feelings of those who have dealt with a history of oppression that continues to this day.

And here, I believe, lies a vital distinction. While it is true that Catholics faced severe discrimination in America for more than a century, we no longer face this type of discrimination today, and our history of oppression is widely acknowledged. However, when you examine the historic treatment of Native Americans in America, the story looks different. They faced genocide, cultural destruction, forced assimilation and a government-organized attempt to undercut their economic prospects. To this day, they still face various and systemic forms of oppression. Yet, we still celebrate Columbus Day every year.

There is something to be said in acknowledging the annals of history, and what covering these murals could mean in that respect. Are we covering the reality of our history as people who live on stolen land? Are we refusing to acknowledge the realities of Catholic missionary history? I don’t think so. Rather, we are refusing to allow this history, a history of oppression and death, to be idolized as a defining feature of our most prominent community building.

The frustrations that the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame have experienced for years are far from superficial. To have the genocide, servitude and conquering of native peoples depicted in grandeur throughout the walls of our Golden Dome is an affront to the true nature and horror of history. And covering the murals is not covering history, it is rejecting the idealization of a figure who has for centuries been revered for the utter destruction of a previous culture, and a favored under the false narrative of spreading Catholicism to America, rather than imposing it on the native populations.

Thank you Fr. Jenkins, for acknowledging the importance of student voices on campus, especially those of minority students, and taking a step in the right direction of respectful and true freedom of expression.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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