Jenkins said that he has heard in recent years “from students, alumni, faculty, staff, representatives of the Native American community, and others on this complex topic,” and that his decision was made after consulting with the Board of Fellows.
Though a brochure to explain the murals' context has been provided since the 1990s, “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,” Jenkins wrote.
The brochure was created after a group of Native American students called for the murals' removal in 1995.
The priest said that there will be “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 themselves will “be covered by woven material consistent with the décor of the space, though it will be possible to display the murals on occasion.”
The university president announced that a committee will be formed “to decide on the place to display the images of the murals and the appropriate communication around the display.”
“The murals present us with several narratives not easily reconciled, and the tensions among them are especially perplexing for us because of Notre Dame’s distinctive history and Catholic mission,” the priest explained.
“The murals were not intended to slight indigenous peoples, but to encourage another marginalized group,” he said, noting that when they were made, the immigrant-dominated population of Notre Dame “encountered significant anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant attitudes in American public life.”
Moreover, Columbus was at the time “hailed by Americans generally as an intrepid explorer.”
“Gregori’s murals focused on the popular image of Columbus as an American hero, who was also an immigrant and a devout Catholic,” Jenkins wrote. “The message to the Notre Dame community was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American.”
The priest then declared that for natives of the Americas “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.”
(Story continues below)
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Jenkins quoted a 1987 meeting of St. John Paul II with the native peoples of the Americas, in which the pope said the encounter “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 pope continued, in remarks not quoted by Jenkins’ letter: “At the same time, in order to be objective, history must record the deeply positive aspects of your people’s encounter with the culture that came from Europe.”
According to the Jenkins, “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.”
Carol Delaney, an emerita professor of anthropology at Stanford University and author of “Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem,” told CNA in 2017 that a popular current narrative around Columbus is tarred by bad history.
“They’re blaming Columbus for the things he didn’t do. It was mostly the people who came after, the settlers,” Delaney said. “He’s been terribly maligned.”
She said Columbus initially had a favorable impression of many of the Native Americans he met and instructed the men under his command not to abuse them but to trade with them; he also punished some of his own men who committed crimes against the natives.