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When will the Columbus murals actually be covered?

| Tuesday, October 8, 2019

A couple weeks ago, at the start of the semester, I took a detour from my usual path to Bond Hall from Hesburgh Library to visit the Main Building. Surely, I told myself, they had covered the Columbus murals over the summer, as promised way back during the bitter frost of January.

It was a gorgeous sunny day with birds chirping and the golden dome beaming overhead when I jogged up the steps of the Main Building, pulled open the large oak doors and walked into the shadowy confines of the second floor.

Lo and behold, like the smell of cheap beer the morning after hopping one too many dive bars, the murals were still there. All 12 of them in their faded, fresco glory. I took one glance at Columbus in a red apron and tights, and another at the Native Americans made to look like Stone Age men around him, and walked out.

Despite living in the Trump era, and Notre Dame being a more button-down institution, to put it mildly, I had hoped the administration would come through and do the right thing. That it would put the brakes on one of the most racist art installations to grace a college campus today, just as it promised during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.

But so far, there’s been no word on when the murals will be covered. When I asked University President Fr. John Jenkins’s spokesman, Dennis Brown, what the deal was, I was instead referred to the Jenkins’ Sept. 17 annual address to the faculty.

In his speech, Jenkins announced the University will act on the recommendations of the ad-hoc committee created in the wake of the decision, which published its report in July. None of these recommendations give a specific date for the covering to take place, however.

Instead, the committee simply describes what the coverings should look like. It recommends designs that feature the “flora and fauna of this region” along with the types of plants and birds used in Christian iconography, “fusing the European aesthetic with that of indigenous peoples.” It also recommends making the second floor of the Main Building into an exhibition of the University’s early history when the administration moves to McKenna Hall in 2022, complete with “high-quality reproductions, a history and [a] discussion of the Gregori Columbus murals in their rich and varied historical contexts.”

As an aside, I should point out as I did in my column last semester, that the committee lacks both an academic specialized in Native American Studies and a member of the local Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi. It does, on the other hand, have professors of Italian Studies and Irish-American Studies, and even a Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, which, as you can probably guess, is super pro-Columbus.

And, I should also point out, that Notre Dame, with its ginormous $13.1 billion endowment, doesn’t have a Native American Studies program, despite making its fortune on Potawatomi land.

Back to the report. Here’s the kicker: The committee asks that the mural covering be delayed “at least through the 2019-20 academic year and perhaps longer.” Whether Jenkins agrees with this bit is unclear, as his address didn’t mention it specifically, and, as I said, I got zilch from University flak.

In an ideal, social justice-y world, this delay — and the very presence of the murals themselves — would incite a crowd of distressed Notre Damers to protest outside the Main Building, just like they did the new housing policy last year. (“What, no intramural sports?”). But that probably won’t happen — especially during midterm season.

Of course, there have been students speaking out against the murals for a long time. For years, the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame has pushed for the University to remove the murals. As Alan Mychal Boyd, a senior who is co-president of the club, put it for The Observer’s recent two-part miniseries on Native culture at Notre Dame, “who people admire says a lot about them.” Coming from a culture where the Italian seafarer was a “symbol of colonialism, a symbol of extermination and forced conversion and exploitation,” the murals were a shock for Boyd when he discovered them during his freshman year.

While the move to cover the murals should be applauded, I still think, as I wrote back in January, that the most ethical thing would be to either remove them completely or paint over them. Sort of like Yale did back in 2017, changing the name of Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College and replacing the South Carolina slaveholder’s portrait in its dining hall. The residence hall now bears the name of a female computer pioneer and naval officer who was a Yale graduate.

This happened not out of the goodwill of administrators, but in response to student and community outrage channeled into steady protest. The year before the university made its decision, an African-American dishwasher broke a stained-glass panel depicting two slaves with bales of cotton on their head in what was then Calhoun College. Corey Menafee was fired and charged with a felony before being freed of charges and given his job back by Yale amid public pressure.

Why did he do it? Menafee told a local newspaper he was tired of looking at the “racist, very degrading” image.

Here at Notre Dame, we should all be tired of the Columbus murals.


Oliver Ortega is a PhD student specializing in Latinx Literature and Politics. Originally from Queens, NY, he has called the Midwest home for almost a decade. Through boundless cynicism he keeps trying. Reach him at [email protected] or @ByOliverOrtega on Twitter.

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

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