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At Notre Dame, students lobby for removal of Columbus murals, call them ‘version of a Confederate monument’

‘Protest, write, plead and demand their removal’ 

Some students, employees and members of the Notre Dame community are calling for the removal of a series of paintings of Christopher Columbus that have adorned the walls of the university’s main building since 1884, calling the murals Notre Dame’s “own version of a Confederate monument.”

The 12 murals, hung 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.

But the murals have recently been the focus of intense campus debate, accused by students and others of including images of Native Americans and blacks in subservient roles, and portraying Native Americans in stereotypical clothing that is not historically accurate.

Senior Afro-Native student Armani Porter said that when he toured Notre Dame after being accepted his senior year of high school, he was initially confused by the murals. Porter, who is Eastern Band Cherokee, particularly noted “how strong the power differential is in every single one of these paintings.” Since that time, he said his confusion has turned to disgust.

“When I look at these photos I can see quite clearly where I would fit into the murals,” said Porter in a town-hall style discussion hosted by the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame on November 29.

Porter is one of many students who have asked that the murals, which he called symbols of “oppression and hatred,” be taken down.

More than 340 students, employees and alumni signed a November 28 letter to university President Rev. John Jenkins imploring him to remove the murals, which they believe greet visitors with a “highly problematic vision of Western triumphalism, Catholic militarism and an overly romantic notion of American expansion.”

“[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,” the letter states.

“In this era of political divisiveness and a renewed rise of dangerous nationalism, it is time for Notre Dame to remove its own version of a Confederate monument. It is time for the murals to go.”

Next to the murals in the main building lie university pamphlets that note the responsibilities viewers have while viewing the paintings.

“These images can be troubling, especially their portrayal of Native Americans. Such depictions conflict with the vision of the dignity of the human person championed by the Catholic Church,” states the pamphlet, which was written by the president’s and public relations’ offices in consultation with a faculty advisory committee.

“Yet, these murals also exist as cultural artifacts that speak to the past hopes of European Catholic immigrants who wanted to carve out a niche in an often hostile society. While these images speak to those hopes, they do so while failing to account for the suffering of Native Americans. We encourage you to consider what these paintings meant to 19th-century Americans of European origin and what they mean to us today.”

However, the open letter to Father Jenkins calls the pamphlets “easily overlooked.”

University spokesperson Dennis Brown told The Observer that while the university has no plans to remove the murals, they are working with the Native American Student Association to reduce concerns about them. Brown also told the Indianapolis Star that the university is “considering more ‘permanent or prominent signage’ to explain the murals’ context.”

Native American students at Notre Dame have been opposed to the murals in the main building at least since the early 1990s. The university created the pamphlets in 1995 in response to complaints from Native American students.

In the open letter to Father Jenkins, the hundreds of signees announced that they will not discontinue their fight.

“The administration, time and time again, has delayed, obfuscated, printed pamphlets and denied any ability to effectively fix the concrete problems the murals represent. As such, while it is tragic that a letter like this is necessary in 2017, as long as the murals remain unchanged, we must continue to protest, write, plead and demand their removal.”

MORE: Pepperdine removes Christopher Columbus statue

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About the Author
Lauren Fox -- University of Notre Dame