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‘There’s still a lot of work to be done:’ Community reflects on covered Columbus murals, Native heritage at ND

| Monday, October 12, 2020

Inside the Main Building, native flora and fauna — vines, rabbits, mice, flowers, turtles and trees — decorate fabric that resembles thick, colorful tapestries. While these coverings are new, the paintings that lie underneath are almost as old as the University itself.

The controversy over the Columbus Murals, painted by Luigi Gregori in the early 1880s and located by the undergraduate admissions office in Notre Dame’s Main Building, is not recent either. For years before their covering, calls to either conceal them or leave them uncovered have resonated throughout the University community.

Looking back

During her time at the University, alumna and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones (‘98) protested the murals alongside other students of color. She then wrote a response to a Letter to the Editor that had denounced the protests.

The author of the Letter to the Editor had written that “it is Columbus, and the followers of Columbus who, for all their misdeeds along the way, set up the institutions which both bring the Indians back to the natural law and introduce them to the way of salvation… God bless Columbus and his murals!”

“Yes, it was Columbus that set the platforms for these racist American institutions. A devil calling someone a savage is like the pot calling the kettle black,” Hannah-Jones responded, back in 1995.

In 2003, an Observer columnist wrote that the murals “celebrated genocide under the Dome.” And in the few years leading up to the historic decision to cover them, the community once again engaged in similar conversation. In 2014, The Observer’s editorial board wrote about the need to acknowledge the history between Notre Dame and Native Americans.

After the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) protested the Columbus murals in Oct. 2017, the topic resurfaced in the campus community, spurring a series of Letters to the Editor and events that culminated in a petition signed by over 300 professors and students, calling for the removal of the murals. Activist group Rising Tide Michiana then unfurled a protest banner in Hesburgh Library.

Where are we now?

Then, on Jan. 2019, University President Fr. John Jenkins announced the murals would be covered — a decision that drew both support and criticism from within and outside the University. Delays in the murals’ covering also caused confusion: It was more than a year after this first announcement that the paintings were finally covered in Sept. 2020.

The initial decision had been followed by the selection of a committee on Feb. 14, 2019 that would advise Fr. Jenkins on how to go about fulfilling his proposal.

“The committee recommended that the installation of the mural coverings coincide with the installation of a new permanent exhibition regarding the University’s early history,” Ann Firth, vice chair of the Columbus Murals Committee and chief of staff to Fr. Jenkins, said in an email to The Observer.

The initial recommendation and plan was that the permanent exhibition would be installed next to the original murals — which would already be covered — on the second floor of the Main Building, once the office of undergraduate admissions moved to McKenna Hall by 2022, according to the report. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed down this process for at least a year, and perhaps for longer, Firth said.

“That reality, coupled with the urgency of the national and campus dialogues on issues of racial justice as Fr. Jenkins referenced in his August 24 letter to the campus community contributed to the decision to install the coverings now, rather than at a date at least 2 years in the future,” Firth said.

Because of this delay, the installation of a temporary exhibit with context regarding the murals and the coverings was also planned for Dec. 2020, Firth said.

The coverings are removable so that faculty may request access to the murals for their classes and so that they can be displayed occasionally, according to the Aug. 24 letter. Besides displaying local biodiversity, the design on the coverings’ fabric is meant to “fuse the European aesthetic with that of indigenous peoples,” Firth said.

Brian Collier, interim director of Native American Initiatives (NAI) and director of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network (AICSN), pointed out that the turtle is a central part of creation stories for Native Americans, as is the tree of life in Christianity. Both symbols can be seen on many of the coverings.

Adriana Perez | The Observer

At the end of the steps of Main Building, by the entrance to the second floor, fabric covers a mural of Queen Isabella I of Spain. The tapestry depicts local flora and fauna, as well as imagery important for both Indigenous and Christian traditions.

When the initial decision to cover the murals was made in Jan. 2019, many denounced it publicly. Yet other individuals and groups supported it, like the student senate, Student Government, College Democrats, BridgeND’s vice president and the Observer Editorial Board.

But some — who appreciated the decision — also expressed that acknowledging Native heritage while aiming toward a more diverse and inclusive Notre Dame required an approach more nuanced than just covering the murals.

“A curtain can be easy and cheap, both intellectually and financially. What a university with real vision, with real character, must do is face the challenge head on, to its core,” Christian Moevs, associate professor of Italian studies, wrote in a Letter to the Editor published Feb. 19, 2019.

Where do we go from here?

A similar sentiment to that expressed by Moevs remains even today, as students, faculty and staff reflect on the recent covering of the Columbus Murals and where the University can go from here.

“We did a lot of heavy lifting, and to finally see something come of that — it was good,” senior Marcus Winchester-Jones, treasurer of the Native American Student Association at Notre Dame (NASAND), said of the murals being covered. Winchester-Jones is a member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.

Notre Dame is “heading in the right direction with that move,” he said. “But there’s still a lot of work to be done, for sure.”

In their report, the Columbus Murals Committee had offered two additional recommendations “concerning further actions the University might take to foster continuing conversation, teaching and research about the murals and their various contexts,” per the cover letter.

The first additional recommendation was to announce a University-wide observance of Founder’s Day “on the feast day of St. Edward the Confessor (October 13), thus occurring close to but not coinciding with Columbus Day,” according to the committee’s report.

A celebration of Founder’s Day would display the murals and invite dialogue about them in connection with a scholarly symposium or teach-in exploring Notre Dame’s early history.

The committee also recommended that Native American communities integral to the University’s founding — such as the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi — be concretely and tangibly recognized, with a monumental sculpture, a prominent land acknowledgment or the establishment of more scholarships for Native American students.

NASAND has asked the University to officially recognize the second Monday of October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day — a day in which the United States has traditionally observed the anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the Americas, with Columbus Day.

“We’re not asking much,” Winchester-Jones said. He added that the change would be an indication to NASAND that “even though we’re small, we’re mighty. And we can get things done, even though the Native population and those interested in the culture aren’t always large in numbers.”

The University has not officially acknowledged Indigenous Peoples’ Day, but it also does not recognize Columbus Day, “given that it is a day of classes and work for our campus community,” Firth said. Students, faculty and staff are expected to continue with their normal daily activities as if it were a normal day, not a federal holiday.

As of 2019, “at least ten states now celebrate some version of Indigenous Peoples’ Day… Many college campuses have dumped Columbus Day for Indigenous Peoples’ Day as have more than 100 cities, towns and counties across the country,” according to NPR. Some of the colleges that have done so include Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Columbia University.

“In the future, if I had to imagine Indigenous Peoples’ Day [at Notre Dame], I think it’d be cool to have a powwow on that day,” Winchester-Jones said. A powwow is a traditional celebration of Native American culture with a social gathering for dancing and singing.

Winchester-Jones also mentioned other ways in which Notre Dame could honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day, such as an email blast acknowledging the celebration or a special dinner at the dining halls.

Marisel Moreno, associate professor of Romance languages and literatures and member of the Columbus Murals Committee, told The Observer in an email that “celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day… is about lifting the veil of invisibility that erases them from the present national narrative, relegating them to a distant past.”

“In the midst of the social reckoning in which we find ourselves, the fight against racism — in all its forms — must confront our sanitized views of the past,” she added.

Referring to the committees’ additional recommendations, Moreno said celebrating Native American heritage on a particular day would include “close collaboration with Pokagon and Potawatomi communities to plan public celebrations as well as talks and panels centering them.”

While the pandemic has put some of these plans on hold, she said, “Notre Dame is committed to recognize and celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Recognition of Native heritage and the University’s presence on Native land need not be confined to a single day, either. There are other tangible and symbolic ways of celebrating the contributions of Native Americans to the University, similar to those recommended by the Columbus Murals Committee.

“Some universities provide free tuition to tribal peoples [whose] lands they inhabit,” Collier, NAI’s director, told The Observer. These universities including Miami University of Ohio and Florida State University.

Collier also talked about the possibility of carrying out land acknowledgements at University-sponsored events such as football games.

“Welcome to Notre Dame Stadium. You are in the traditional homeland of the Pokagon Potawatomi people and the home of the Fighting Irish,” he said, changing his voice to briefly adopt the role of broadcaster.

About the stadium, Winchester-Jones said he thinks “it’d be cool if they had a Pokagon flag up there.”

These acknowledgements would bring more business to the Pokagon Band’s Four Winds casino, Collier added, “because all of that money that they get from the casino pays for healthcare, food and housing for Pokagon people.”

“We may be on the nicest piece of land in the entire Midwest,” Collier said. “So, there should be somebody that we’re thanking for that.”

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About Adriana Perez

Adriana is a junior from Guayaquil, Ecuador majoring in Political Science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy and Sustainability. You can find her on Twitter @adrianamperezr.

Contact Adriana