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Decision to cover Notre Dame’s Columbus murals stirs debate, disagreement

A recent decision by University of Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins to cover 135-year-old Christopher Columbus murals on display in a main campus building has elicited both praise and condemnation from students, alumni and outside observers.

Jenkins on Jan. 20 announced the historic artwork would be covered and a committee established to decide their long-term fate, but that the plan is to “create a permanent display for high-quality, high-resolution images of the murals in a campus setting to be determined.” The murals, painted directly on the walls, cannot survive relocation, he stated.

The announcement drew praise from a vocal contingent on campus that has long bemoaned the murals and called them a “version of a Confederate monument.”

Among them is the Native American Association of Notre Dame, which posted on its Facebook page that the move “is a good step towards acknowledging the full humanity of those Native people who have come before us.”

“We sincerely hope that Father Jenkins and his administration will continue to prioritize Native issues on our campus in the coming weeks and months as there is still work to be done,” they wrote. The group did not respond to a request from The College Fix seeking further comment.

A few days after the decision, Notre Dame senior Zada Ballew — a member of the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi Indians — wrote a letter to the editor of The Observer campus newspaper to hail the development, saying she was hurt by the murals as a prospective student and that they only tell one side of the story.

And The Observer editorial board celebrated Jenkins’ decision as a demonstration of the power of advocacy on campus.

“For more than 20 years, groups of motivated students have challenged the University’s decision to continue displaying Luis Gregori’s murals of Christopher Columbus in the Main Building. Their work has finally paid off,” the board stated.

Eight letters have been written to The Observer in response to Jenkins’ decision. The College Democrats applauded the choice. Two alumni called the decision “specious.” A PhD student wrote that Jenkins’ decision was not strong enough, and that the murals should be permanently removed.

The 12 murals, displayed in the same hallway as the admissions office, depict Christopher Columbus’ journey and arrival to the Americas in 1492. The founder of the university, Father Edward Sorin, commissioned Vatican painter Luigi Gregori to create murals that would inspire, uplift, educate, and be “didactically Catholic,” according to a university pamphlet.

In Jenkins’ letter to the Notre Dame community, he wrote that the busy throughway where the murals are located is “not well suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition.”

Pamphlets exist near the artwork that inform viewers of the context of the murals’ creation and certain aspects of the historical background of the depicted events, but some have called them “easily overlooked.”

But Notre Dame sophomore Luke Jones said in an interview with The College Fix that the university’s busiest hallway is the perfect place to share the Native American story, done correctly.

“Yes, these murals need to be put in context. The Native American part of the story needs to be shared,” said Jones, chairman of Notre Dame’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter.

Notre Dame YAF is calling for Jenkins to reverse his decision, leave the murals in their place, and “create all the context you need right there in that spot.”

“Isn’t the goal to share your story with everybody—not to have your story misrepresented by some murals? So if you’re given the main stage of the university to share your story, why is that something you’re not interested in?” Jones said.

Jones said he hopes to get this question answered in a campus forum event hosted by BridgeND which will seek to bring together NASA and YAF for a public discussion. The event is currently being planned, Jones said.

MORE: Columbus is not a villain: Professor says explorer has been seriously maligned

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About the Author
Lauren Fox -- University of Notre Dame