A move by Native American staff and student groups at the University of New Mexico to pressure administrators into covering up a Great Depression-era mural, which controversially marginalizes the state’s two largest minority groups, has sparked a national debate.
In one of four scenes in the mural, which was painted in 1939, faceless Hispanic and Native American figures are seen on the periphery, with a white man in the center.
Robin Starr Minthorn, a Native American studies professor, who is Kiowa, says the mural causes psychological and emotional distress.
“You’re always having to walk by there, or you’re sitting in front of it, and you don’t see people representing you who have any facial expressions,” Minthorn said.
The artwork was commissioned under the federal Public Works of Art Project for the school’s Zimmerman Library.
The first scene in the series shows five Native Americans with a weaving loom at the center. In the next, two Hispanic women working in an adobe building, while a man labors in a field. The third shows a blond man and woman hovering over desks with a microscope and other machinery. A white doctor holds a baby, according to the Associated Press.
“The murals themselves present a very racialized perspective of who is in authority,” said Glenabah Martinez, a Native American professor and associate dean in the University’s Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies department. “It was about the portrayal of how the racial hierarchy works in New Mexico.”
However, all students and staff don't consider the mural offensive. Zachary Martinez, a student at the school says it helps represent New Mexico.
“This is a very debated topic, but I do think that we gotta keep it here at UNM,” he added. “Because I think this will teach us about our culture and our past and will help us prevent these things again,” Martinez told KRQE-TV.
President Garnett Stokes and Provost Richard Wood have proposed covering the mural with curtains as the dialogue over its future continues. However, any action on the mural must be approved by the Regents Historic Preservation Committee.
Native American faculty and student groups have used recent events to reject symbolism and call for better representation, while also demanding an end to campus celebrations that demean Native Americans and their experiences.
In a recent victory, calls to recognize Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day were honored Monday, Minthorn said.
Last year, an official University of New Mexico seal etched with the profiles of a frontiersman and conquistador was suspended. The two groups had historically mistreated and oppressed Native Americans in the state.