When the Past Presents Problems

Author: Jason Kelly '95

News Murals Feature Photo by Matt Cashore '94

In the American imagination of the late 19th century, Christopher Columbus was a national hero, the explorer who, while sailing for Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in 1492, discovered the new world that the United States had since come to dominate. As the 400th anniversary of his first voyage approached, many considered Columbus “the first American.”


“First, that is, from a European perspective,” notes a Notre Dame pamphlet written more than 20 years ago to contextualize the tensions inherent in the Main Building’s controversial Columbus murals. He had “discovered” inhabited land. To the native Taíno people Columbus encountered, he did not represent triumphant exploration but tragic exploitation, death and destruction.


Vatican portrait artist Luigi Gregori’s 12 murals portray Columbus, the University brochure states, “much as a hagiographer might tell the story of a missionary saint.” Whether encountering natives in North America or presenting those he brought back from his voyage to the Spanish monarchs, Columbus commands reverent attention. Even in paintings depicting hardships the explorer experienced — quelling mutiny among his crew and facing arrest for disobedience to his royal patrons — his expression remains “monumentally impassive, the unmoved mover,” a formal artistic device that creates “a heroic impression.” By contrast, the Taínos, adorned in stereotypical and historically inaccurate regalia, are represented as uncivilized, subservient heathens to be saved.


When Gregori painted his murals on the interior walls of the Main Building’s second floor between 1882 and 1884, the idealized understanding of Columbus as a noble Christian adventurer prevailed. What his arrival wrought to the detriment of Native Americans did not enter into the narrative.


Claiming land for European colonizers in the name of Jesus Christ, Columbus ushered in an era of decimation and degradation among native peoples whose cultural heritage extended back thousands of years. Some chilling atrocities happened at Columbus’ own hands.


According to Laurence Bergreen’s 2011 book, Columbus: The Four Voyages, a crew member on the second expedition reported that he captured a native woman whom the “Lord Admiral” allowed him to rape. Columbus ordered ears severed and even the execution of natives for minor offenses. He demanded gold be surrendered to him, with failure to comply punishable by death. Reports of such brutality, possibly exaggerated by his enemies, led to his arrest and an inquiry in which Columbus acknowledged the truth of many of the charges against him, including a prohibition on the baptism of natives without his permission in order to maintain a population of slaves.


Historical records show that Columbus returned from his second voyage with hundreds of Native Americans to be sold as chattel in the Seville slave market, the Notre Dame brochure reports. He’s also accused of initiating genocide. As many as one-third of Hispaniola’s estimated 300,000 inhabitants died within four years of his arrival. As many as half of them may have committed suicide rather than live under colonial oppression. Within a few decades, the native population had been almost erased.


The Main Building murals offer no hint of this side of the story, prompting periodic protests for decades, usually led by Notre Dame’s Native American students and alumni. Opponents of the images have argued that their place of honor under the Golden Dome demeans Native Americans and the ancestral Potawatomi land on which the University is built.


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Such objections have flared and receded over the years. During the 2017-18 academic year, the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame (NASAND) held a protest and a campus forum. Hundreds of students, faculty and alumni signed a letter calling for the murals to be removed.


Then the issue seemed to slip back under the radar, following the pattern of campus activism and administrative inaction that had characterized the issue.


On January 20 this year, the pattern changed. University President Rev. John I. Jenkins, CSC, ’76, ’78M.A., announced that the Columbus murals will be covered. They will remain on the walls where they’re painted, Jenkins said, because “any attempt to move them would damage and likely destroy the works.” But rather than leaving them on display, “they will be covered by woven material consistent with the décor of the space.” High-resolution images of the murals will be available for viewing in another campus location. A presidential committee of faculty, staff and students will work out the particulars of how and where.


Jenkins’ decision, announced in a letter to the campus community on the eve of the holiday celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., inspired outrage and gratitude.


“I personally along with members of the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame am thankful for Father Jenkins’ thoughtful and wise decision,” sophomore Marcus Winchester-Jones, NASAND president, said in a statement. “This is a good step towards acknowledging the full humanity of those native people who have come before us.”


Zada Ballew, a Notre Dame senior and tribal citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi that has its roots in the St. Joseph River valley, described the experience of seeing the murals for the first time in a letter to The Observer. Visiting the admissions office with her father when she was a prospective first-generation college student, she felt the images of native people at the explorer’s feet diminishing her excitement. They offered “no hint at Columbus’s motivation for exploiting the land and its people,” she wrote.


Ballew still pursued her dream to attend Notre Dame, where her great-grandmother had cleaned residence halls, but her discomfort with the murals persisted. After leading a campus tour for eighth-graders from the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, she recognized echoes of her own experience in the reflections she asked them to write. “Sad and angry,” one child wrote. “The feeling of lost hope,” added another. Appreciative that such reactions will be avoided once the paintings are covered, Ballew addressed the conclusion of her letter to Jenkins: “On behalf of myself, and the countless other American Indians that have walked the halls of the Main Building, I thank you for your commitment to justice and willingness to stand up for those on the margins.”


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Grant Strobl, a Notre Dame law student and national chairman of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), denounced the move, saying the University had chosen to “coddle its students by shielding them from a painting of an important figure in world history. If we adopt the standard of judging previous generations by current standards, we may reach a point where there are no longer accomplishments to celebrate.”


Notre Dame’s YAF chapter invited Michael Knowles, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire, for a February lecture entitled “Columbus: Hero Not Heathen.” It’s a symptom of educational decline, the conservative commentator said, to “cover up art and history with a giant tarp lest reality offend the ignorant and unreasonable.” Despite Columbus’ moral failings, Knowles added, he should be celebrated in the U.S. because his exploration represented the first step toward the country we know and the freedoms we enjoy. “For us to spit on that man who made all of it possible because he made some moral concessions in order to take the most ambitious voyage at that time in the history of man is so bizarrely ungrateful. It is so ignorant of historical and political reality as to be naïve and sophomoric.”


The president’s decision to cover but not remove the murals reflects a longstanding administrative struggle to strike a balance that respects the historical value of Gregori’s paintings to American Catholics and preserves them as works of art while acknowledging the damage European conquest inflicted on native populations and the impact of the murals’ condescending depictions on their descendants.


“Whatever else Columbus’ 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,” Jenkins said in his announcement. “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.”


While grappling with that darker side, Jenkins also recognized the story’s laudatory 19th-century Catholic interpretation, deeply intertwined as it is with Notre Dame’s own history. The murals reflect the times in which they were painted — a period when immigrant American Catholics were ostracized, often under suspicion of a devotion to the Vatican that superseded their allegiance to the U.S. By embracing Columbus both as a Catholic and as an American icon, they could assert the unity of those identities in an indivisible religious and national loyalty.


Today, while the Catholic struggle for mainstream acceptance has long since been achieved, American Indians remain marginalized, and the dehumanizing power of an oppressor has become the murals’ dominant theme. “Such depictions,” the official interpretive pamphlet states, “conflict with the vision of the dignity of the human person championed by the Catholic Church.”


Some critical responses to Jenkins’ decision argued that, in covering the murals, the Church itself suffers the indignity.


“Columbus may be the momentary object of hatred,” Alejandro Bermudez, executive director of the Spanish-language Catholic news service ACI Prensa, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “but the real target is the Catholic faith itself.” If an artistic expression of “Columbus bringing the faith to this hemisphere” is not welcome at a Catholic university, “what part of Catholic identity is?”


Bermudez noted that “in what is now Peru, children were sacrificed by the Incas in a practice known as Capacocha. Should any positive depictions of the Incas be covered up, in light of this heinous practice? Of course not. And those who hate Columbus and his legacy still must acknowledge that this indigenous practice vanished thanks to the advent of Christianity in our hemisphere.”


Jenkins appeared on Fox News to defend his decision. He drew a distinction between the kind of atmosphere where the murals might be properly studied and discussed and the symbolic grandeur they take on in Main Building corridors, a setting he does not consider conducive to probing the complexities of the story they tell.


“We’re not concealing anything. We’re not erasing anything,” Jenkins said. “These images will be on display continuously. They won’t be on display in the main thoroughfare but in a place where the full story — the full story — can be revealed.”


The brochures, placed near the murals in the 1990s, were the administration’s first attempt to tell what Jenkins calls the full story. They situate the works in the contexts of world and art history, offering information about the Native American experience and explaining the inaccuracies in Gregori’s depiction of them, while providing a less heroic portrait of Columbus.


Erika Doss, an American studies professor with expertise in public art and monuments, has often taken her classes to study the murals. She says the pamphlets, although “very well-written, very nuanced,” fail in their objective. In the hushed and reverent setting of the Main Building, printed context cannot compete with the visual power of the larger-than-life scenes of Columbus as conqueror.


Medieval Italian literature scholar Christian Moevs once saw a Native American friend react to the murals as if he had been “assaulted.” That kind of emotional impact argues for covering them, he wrote in a letter to The Observer, but he warned that such a move by itself could be a fig leaf, covering an embarrassment without addressing the deeper source of shame.


 Notre Dame should not let a curtain draw the drama surrounding the murals to a close, he insisted, but instead must use the controversy as a catalyst to add cultural and academic richness to campus life. One problem with the images, he noted, is their sense of one-sided encounter, “never thinking to ask what a Native American could teach a (European) Catholic about civilization, about humanity, about the world and nature, about spirituality, about salvation.” The “full story,” in that sense, extends far beyond Columbus’ actions, to the soil that has nurtured Notre Dame itself.


“A curtain can be easy and cheap, both intellectually and financially,” Moevs wrote. “What a university with a real vision, with real character, must do is face the challenge head on, to its core. It must foster the study of Native American culture, the civilization (and spirituality) we displaced, and Notre Dame’s — and Catholicism’s — own deep and revealing history of engagement with that culture.”


Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.