Determined to avoid giving offense, the University of Notre Dame has decided to cover murals on the wall of the Main Building showing Native Americans in submissive postures before white explorers, including Christopher Columbus.
The murals have come under criticism from students over the last couple of years; in 2017, hundreds of students, employees and Notre Dame alumni wrote a letter to the campus newspaper that read:
It is time for the murals to go. The 12 Luigi Gregori murals have adorned the main hall of Main Building for over 130 years, greeting millions of campus residents and visitors with a highly problematic vision of Western triumphalism, Catholic militarism and an overly romantic notion of American expansion. Christopher Columbus, as admitted by the University published pamphlet and widely acknowledged by modern scholarship, was an owner and distributor of humans as slaves. Columbus’ fortune, fame and wealth came from the destruction, mutilation and transaction of Native American and African persons.
First, to any Native American student, staff member, faculty member or visitor who enters Main Building, the murals offer the most debasing form of insult … Second, to any student, staff, faculty or guest who identifies with an historically oppressed group, the presence of the murals in 21st century America mocks every attempt to make campus more inclusive, more diverse and more culturally sensitive … Third, art history is replete with racial biases and problematic tensions. Such tensions belong in museums where they can be studied, not alongside Notre Dame’s most honored award recipients and former presidents … Fourth, and finally, the theological message of the murals is one the University should utterly disavow and repudiate.
ABC News notes, “The 12 murals created in the 1880s by Luis Gregori were intended to encourage immigrants who had come to the U.S. during a period of anti-Catholic sentiment.” But the Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, has another perspective, arguing that the murals depict the exploitation and repression of Native Americans. He wrote an open letter to the campus regarding the murals in which he stated:
Gregori painted the murals directly on to the plaster of the walls, and so any attempt to move them would damage and likely destroy the works … because the second-floor hall of the Main Building is a busy throughway for visitors and members of the University community, it is not well suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition. We will, therefore, create a permanent display for high-quality, high-resolution images of the murals in a campus setting to be determined that will be conducive to such an informed and careful consideration. The murals on the walls of the Main Building will themselves be covered by woven material consistent with the décor of the space, though it will be possible to display the murals on occasion.
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.
For the native peoples of this “new” land, however, Columbus’s arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe. 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. … 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.
Marcus Winchester-Jones, the president of the Native American Student Association, hailed Jenkins' decision, stating, "This is a good step towards acknowledging the full humanity of those native people who have come before us.”