Notre Dame and Native American Heritage Month

Author: Mia Moran

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November is Native American Heritage Month. As Thanksgiving break comes to an end, it is important to take time to not just reflect on the pilgrims who celebrated their harvest almost 400 years ago, but also to commemorate the past and present Native Americans and their land which we stand on. 

Looking back on Notre Dame’s history, the university's inextricable ties to Native American heritage are often forgotten. The land given to founder Fr. Edward Sorin was purchased from the Pokégnek Bodéwadmik the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi — who had requested the presence of Catholic priests to protect themselves against forced removal. Unlike the rest of the Potawatomi, the Pokagons were able to remain in Michiana, Notre Dame graduate Jack Boland, a political science major and advocate for Native American contributions to the university’s origin story, explains.  

Moreover, it was the Potawatomi who fed and housed Fr. Sorin in the winter when he arrived in South Bend, and it was also the Potawatomi who likely became some of the first students at the school. Yet Notre Dame’s website does not acknowledge these origins of Notre Dame nor Fr. Sorin’s interactions with the Potawatomi tribe. Although a senate resolution to include Native American history during first-year Moreau classes overwhelmingly passed during the 2020-2021 school year, it has yet to be implemented. 

The Notre Dame website does, however, discuss the controversy surrounding the Christopher Columbus murals in the Main Building, particularly their depiction of Native Americans. These murals were painted by Luigi Gregori between 1882 and 1884 and have been covered by removable tapestries since the fall of 2020. The university chose to use removable tapestries to allow the murals to be used for instructional purposes at various times throughout the year and acknowledge, rather than eradicate, the university’s history.

At the start of November, President Fr. John Jenkins released a statement recognizing Native American Heritage Month, expressing gratitude for the long-lasting relationship Notre Dame has shared with the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi. 

Fr. Jenkins referred to Native American Heritage Month as a “time when we can individually and collectively celebrate the culture, traditions and ways of this country’s Indigenous peoples, while also taking time to better understand their often-painful history.” 

Historically, Notre Dame’s Native American Student Association has hosted Native American powwows, gatherings where Native Americans sing, dance, reconnect with friends and celebrate their ancestral heritages. Five tribes attended the first powwow in 1989, with 12 tribes attending the next year.

During this past month, Notre Dame celebrated Native American History Month by hosting several events, including presentations and performances held by Sacramento Knoxx — a media and cultural artist of Ojibwe and Anishinaabe descent — and crafts lessons hosted by the Native American Student Association. 

Notre Dame’s rich and complex history with Indigenous peoples reminds the university community to remember this legacy and its presence on Native lands year round rather than just in November.