An indigenous perspective on the murals
Letter to the Editor | Wednesday, April 3, 2019
As a Lakota student and a member of the Native American Student Association (NASAND), I’m often accused of not listening to arguments that don’t immediately agree with me. This of course ignores past Observer articles in which I am quoted that made it abundantly clear that I was open to discussion and NASAND holding an open town hall on the Columbus Murals last year. So once more, I am quite open to anyone who would like to discuss Columbus and his impact on indigenous people. Unfortunately, that challenge seems to have only be taken up by alumni of Notre Dame who have sent messages to the NASAND group that I can only categorize as openly racist. This letter is mainly a therapeutic exercise for me personally. But I also hope that it can serve as a perspective of an indigenous student at Notre Dame on the issue.
I decided it might be beneficial for me to step out from the bubble I have apparently confined myself to. I attended the controversial event titled, “Columbus: Hero Not Heathen” put on by a small conservative group on campus featuring Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire. Besides the founder saying Arabs, “like to bomb crap and live in open sewage,” I would ask that you view the website’s Columbus Day video. But I still felt that I should listen to the opposition to gain an understanding of where they are coming from. I was waiting for the facts and logic to overwhelm me and convince me.
Unfortunately, the event could be boiled down to crying about Notre Dame becoming a victim of the “far left” and leftists taking over the education system, followed by a summation of Columbus’ life that glossed over atrocities (I wonder why?), and frequently used dog-whistle language to excuse those atrocities. Knowles, a spoiled kid from Westchester County and a successful political commentator, doesn’t have much to complain about. He isn’t being oppressed, he doesn’t have to combat the effects of colonialism on his community. He isn’t fighting for basic human rights. Instead, he’s getting paid quite a lot to complain about Notre Dame finally taking a step toward creating a welcoming environment for victims of genocide.
One claim that Knowles made stuck out to me as particularly insulting to many who would have a problem with the glorification of Columbus, namely Native Americans. At one point in the lecture, Knowles claimed that those opposed to this glorification are “Un-American.” Who are you calling “Un-American”? This is extremely insulting to Native Americans, as Natives have served in the military at a greater rate than any ethnic group, long before we were even given citizenship or the right to vote. While traditional religions were banned in the states, Natives were fighting and dying in the Vietnam War. This trend has continued, with 18.6 percent of Native Americans serving in the post 9/11 period. So again, I ask, who are you calling “Un-American”?
Knowles claims that we do not appreciate the freedom brought by the United States. He dishonestly leaves out the part in which that “freedom” was forced at the barrel of a gun. Please ask the people of my reservation or the Oglala reservation (which is currently underwater) about the “freedom” and “civilization” brought by the United States. Of course, that would require Knowles and the small conservatives on campus to leave their gated communities to empathize with people for a change.
At first glance, Knowles’ assertion that leftists have taken over Notre Dame is laughable. At second, third, fourth and fifth glances, it is equally laughable. If the University has been infiltrated and corrupted by leftists, it has a funny way of showing it. If the simple act of listening to a marginalized community and tentatively acting upon criticisms is a takeover by leftists, we are really bad at it. So, is it just this decision, or was it its decision to invite the first African American president to speak at commencement? Or was it their support for DACA recipients? Which action by the school turned Notre Dame into a social justice warrior wasteland? Knowles and other critics have also claimed that the University has slowly started to shed its Catholic identity by beginning to accept progress and change. Funny I know, but apparently being decent to Native Americans means the school that has a gigantic golden dome (which I would argue is antithetical to Catholicism itself) with the Virgin Mary atop it, has lost its Catholic identity. Knowles and his ilk seem to have abandoned Ben Shapiro’s model of “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” in favor of “the bad people made me feel bad for liking Columbus. The only Catholic we should admire apparently.”
Knowles also adopted the practice of using language framing the people that Columbus encountered as “primitive” and “nearly naked,” along with frequent insistence that Columbus discovered America, despite the existence of an entire people. By describing them in this way, the people Columbus encountered are no longer people with a unique society, customs and history. Instead, they are primitive child-like people in need of guidance. You see, Columbus’ first instinct was not to enslave them, but to help them, contrary to actual history. It has the ring of Manifest Destiny and the White Man’s Burden.
After Knowles’ presentation, he opened it to Q&A. This segment of the event was hilarious. I suggest watching this part, as the very first question is comedy gold. After listening to these amazing questions, I decided I wanted to join the fun. Originally, I had planned of asking a question about considering Native perspectives on the murals. I introduced myself in Lakota, the language of my tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. Knowles quickly interrupted me and asked if I was related to Senator Elizabeth Warren. This interaction showed me that Knowles was not interested in a debate or discussion (I should’ve realized this after he wrote a blank book and sold it). So, I asked him a question that was only partially serious, before walking out the door and going home. I did this because Michael Knowles and the small group on campus are, despite their claims, not interested in dialogue. My goal wasn’t to debate Knowles, but to waste his time just as he had wasted everyone else’s.
So again, if these groups were truly interested in discussion, they should have come to NASAND’s town hall or to our demonstration in front of Main Building. They should have engaged with our (and my) Facebook page or responded to my call for discussion in past Observer articles and letters.
For those who would like to do something productive to help Native Americans on campus, I would suggest following what we’re up to at NASAND. We’re always looking for ways to bring a Native perspective to Notre Dame.
For every negative message, we have received twice as many positive messages. I’ve had productive discussions with those who disagree with the decision. Many faculty and students have come out in support to NASAND’s goals. We recently had two important resolutions regarding a Native Studies minor and an official land acknowledgement passed by student senate. Native people have always fought for a better experience in a country that resists change, Notre Dame is no different. There will always be people who resist change for the sake of resisting change; they don’t matter. Progress and acceptance do.
Finally, please consider donating to the Pine Ridge (Oglala) Reservation, which is currently suffering from devastating floods.
Mikey Boyd, Sicangu Oyate
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.