The University of Notre Dame announced Friday that it will cover a series of murals that depict Christopher Columbus and his famous journeys across the Atlantic.
Native American organizations have been calling for the removal of the murals, which portray Columbus as heroic and the Native Americans as beneficiaries of his arrival. Many colleges have struggled with art of earlier eras that does not reflect contemporary values of inclusiveness.
For Notre Dame, the issue of the murals has been particularly complicated. They are located in a prominent place in the Main Building. And they were for many years a point of pride to Roman Catholic students and alumni at the university. The murals are fragile and painted directly on the wall, so the university had no option to move them. The university has decided to cover the murals and make high-quality reproductions available elsewhere on campus (in a location not yet determined) with more historical context. The murals were painted by Luigi Gregori from 1882 through 1884.
"The murals present us with several narratives not easily reconciled, and the tensions among them are especially perplexing for us because of Notre Dame’s distinctive history and Catholic mission," said a letter to the campus by the Reverend John I. Jenkins, president of the university. "At the time they were painted, the murals were not intended to slight indigenous peoples, but to encourage another marginalized group. In the second half of the 19th century, Notre Dame’s Catholic population, largely immigrants or from families of recent immigrants, encountered significant anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant attitudes in American public life. At the same time, Columbus was hailed by Americans generally as an intrepid explorer, the 'first American' and the 'discoverer of the New World.' Gregori’s murals focused on the popular image of Columbus as an American hero, who was also an immigrant and a devout Catholic. The message to the Notre Dame community was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American."
But Father Jenkins noted that this was not the only message people saw in the murals.
"For the native peoples of this 'new' land, however, Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe," Father Jenkins added. "Whatever else Columbus’s arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement, and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions. As Pope John Paul II said in a 1987 meeting with the Native Peoples of the Americas, 'the encounter [between native and European cultures] was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples. The cultural oppression, the injustices, the disruption of your way of life and of your traditional societies must be acknowledged.' The murals’ depiction of Columbus as beneficent explorer and friend of the native peoples hides from view the darker side of this story, a side we must acknowledge."
Notre Dame has a brochure available for those who have viewed the murals in their current location. "These murals … survive as that period’s interpretation of the historical events they depict. We, in our turn, have the responsibility to interpret both the historical events and the murals themselves from the perspective of our own time, with our knowledge and our moral commitments. The university encourages you to keep this responsibility in mind as you view and reflect on these."
Father Jenkins's letter noted, however, that the murals are located in a "busy throughway for visitors and members of the university community," a location that "is not well suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition."
As Native American students have in the last two years urged the university to do something about the murals, some alumni and others have argued to keep them where they are.
A letter from an alumna in the student newspaper, The Notre Dame Observer, defended Columbus as a "brilliant navigator," whose history has been distorted. "Even more divisive than the twisted facts employed in anti-Columbus rhetoric, however, is its twisted logic," the letter said. "It simply doesn’t make sense to argue that Columbus should be held responsible for all the crimes committed by those who came after him. (Three-quarters of Americans agree, according to recent polling.) Almost no cultural icon’s legacy is perfect, not even the saints of our Catholic Church. If we go on a revisionist crusade, only Mary atop the Dome is safe."
The president of the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame responded with his own letter. "Our 'attack' is not political (it’s not even just about Columbus!), but a call for human dignity and progress," he wrote. "The most open form of representation that natives get on Notre Dame’s campus is not through a faculty member, administrator or celebration -- but through pictures of our people in chains. This needs to be addressed immediately."