The University of Notre Dame has announced that it will cover up painted murals depicting the life and travels of Italian explorer Christopher Columbus that are displayed in one of the campus buildings. While acknowledging that the intent of the murals, when painted over a hundred years ago, had been to celebrate Italian American immigrants and their contribution to the building of the United States University President Jenkins had this to say.
“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. 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.”
I think he’s right. Good start. Now it’s time to give the campus back.
The University of Notre Dame website has this to say about the founding of the university.
“The University of Notre Dame began late on the bitterly cold afternoon of November 26, 1842, when a 28-year-old French priest, Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and seven companions, all of them members of the recently established Congregation of the Holy Cross, took possession of 524 snow-covered acres that the Bishop of Vincennes had given them in the Indiana mission fields.”
That the Bishop had given them? This was Indian land, specifically land that belonged to the Potawatomi tribe. They had been there since at least the 1600’s. How did the Bishop give it to anyone?
Father Sorin and his companions did not arrive at some desolate place devoid of human population. They arrived in an area with a substantial civilization peopled by native tribes that had been in contact with white settlers for generations. During all of that time those tribes dealt with the French, British and Americans as equals.
Until the war of 1812. Many Indian tribes, seeing the writing on the wall as the United States of America expanded from the eastern seaboard, bet on the British in that conflict and lost. Now they were face to face with a United States – growing in power, mistrustful of their intentions and determined to occupy the continent.
In the post war years settlers poured west, a series of conflicts were fought with native tribes and a move to shove those tribes off their native lands and “remove” them west of the Mississippi grew in power. Amongst those tribes were the Potawatomi. They could not begin to stand up to the forces arrayed against them.
Under military pressure and the threat of violence Indian tribes in the Great Lakes area in the decades after the War of 1812, including the Potawatomi, ceded more and more land and signed more and more “agreements.” They had no realistic alternative. It was their only hope of survival.
Most of the Potawatomi were ultimately moved west of the Mississippi in two waves. The Prairie and Forest Bands from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin went to Council Bluffs in Iowa; and the Potawatomi of the Woods from Michigan and Indiana were relocated to eastern Kansas near Osawatomie. A handful of small bands of the tribe managed to escape relocation, and there remains a small population of individuals in the vicinity of South Bend near Notre Dame.
The Cherokee refer to their similar “removal” to Oklahoma as the “The Trail of Tears,” because of the misery and death that accompanied it. The Potawatomi call their “removal” the “Trail of Death.” One band numbering 859 individuals at the beginning of a forced march to Kansas lost over forty people during the movement. As they walked away from their homes in Indiana they could see their fields and houses being burned to prevent their return.
This story is not unique to the Potawatomi. When white settlers first landed on the shores of North America they found a continent filled with nations, cultures and civilizations. One by one, over the course of centuries, those nations, cultures and civilizations were conquered. They did not magically disappear. They didn’t willingly welcome hundreds of millions of people from across the ocean to come take their lands.
This story is also not unique to Native Americans. This is the story of human history. I am of Celtic descent. We’re the guys who play bagpipes and live in Scotland, Wales and Ireland and the other fringe areas of Europe. Once upon a time the Celts controlled virtually all of Europe and threatened imperial Rome itself. Then Julius Caesar marched north and things took a turn for the worse.
The Greeks still want Constantinople back.
Human history is the history of conquest and war. The Aztecs that Cortes crushed in Mexico were themselves relatively recent conquerors of the area who had come from the north. The Navajo that Kit Carson fought had overrun much of the Southwest centuries earlier and destroyed the Anastasi civilization that preceded them.
We can try to find better, more peaceful ways to relate and interact. We can hope for and work for a future that is not defined by war and destruction. Those are worthy objectives. Selectively deciding to “erase” reminders of our past serves no real purpose. Pulling a curtain over murals while continuing to occupy lands stolen at the barrel of a gun only adds dishonesty and hypocrisy to the story.
Leave the murals where they are. Let everyone see them, and let everyone know how we really got here, so we can move ahead together.
Or give back the campus and start serving eviction notices in Manhattan.