A “medicine man” who helped spark the Native American rights movement by occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969 is the current Rooney International Visiting Scholar at Robert Morris University.
Francis Burnside, 67, is a hataalii, a practitioner of the sacred rites of the people who prefer to call themselves the Dine (pronounced di-NEH). Like most of the Dine, or Navajo, Burnside lives in the Navajo Nation, a territory of 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The 2000 U.S. Census counted 298,000 people of Navajo descent, making them the second-largest tribe after the Cherokee. The Navajo also are closely related to the Apache through language, history and culture.
A counselor and longtime activist, Burnside plans to spend his time at the university explaining his people’s philosophy and trying to convey its insights. “There is no such thing as an enemy on this earth,” Burnside said. “Everything is sacred; everyone is sacred. This is the Garden of Eden that we were presented with. How will we take care of it?”
The son of one of the U.S. Army’s famed “code-talkers” during World War II, Burnside studied engineering at Oklahoma State University in the early ‘60s before moving to the Bay Area. After enrolling at UC Berkeley (where he shared a class with Patty Hearst), Burnside began attending meetings of Native American student activists. He was part of a group that snuck onto deserted Alcatraz Island by boat in 1969 and claimed it in the name of all Native Americans. The peaceful occupation lasted 19 months. “It was very much worthwhile, because it started to wake up people across the world,” Burnside said.
“What is important is that we are recognizing the hataalii as a philosopher and an expert in his culture’s own metaphysical tradition,” said Edward Karshner, an assistant professor of English studies and communications skills who first approached Burnside about coming to RMU. “Past practices have dictated that the only ‘real’ experts were scholars like me who would visit for a few weeks. It seems obvious, but the hataalii has never been recognized as an academic equal until now.“
Since it began in 2004, the Rooney Visiting Scholars Program, named for founder and university trustee Patricia Rooney, has brought 18 visiting professors and scholars to RMU from Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, the Middle East, and now the Navajo Nation. Scholars conduct research, teach, or conduct a service project and give public presentations on their fields of expertise and their home countries.