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Navajo healer Francis Burnside shares culture, traditions

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By Chris Ramirez
Sunday, Feb. 21, 2010

Francis Burnside was 8 when a white teacher in Utah told him that speaking his native tongue was sacrilege.

Some six decades later, he still speaks a centuries-old language of his ancestors.

Burnside, a traditional Navajo healer, or hataalii, is the Rooney International Visiting Scholar at Robert Morris University. He has been lecturing at the school in Moon since January, but will open his experiences to a wider audience today at the Senator John Heinz History Center.

"About 92 percent of America doesn't have any idea how Native Americans live," Burnside said. "Maybe that's the reason I'm here: to inform."

Born and raised on the Navajo Nation reservation, Burnside is the son of a U.S. Army "code talker" and the grandson of another healer. He practices the sacred rites of the Dine (pronounced di-NEH) people. Navajo traditionally call themselves Dine, which means "the people" in Navajo.

"We were told in school never to speak our native language. And so today I speak a foreign language," Burnside said.

The Rooney Visiting Scholars Program, started in 2004, is named for founder and university trustee Patricia Rooney. Scholars research, teach, or conduct a service project and give public presentations on their fields of expertise and their home countries. Burnside's tenure with RMU ends March 10.

"What makes him unique is that he's traditional. His maternal grandparents taught him traditional songs, and chants and healing ways. That's the way it's done," said Edward Karshner, an assistant professor of English studies and communications skills at RMU. "It's not a calling. You're chosen to do it, not the other way around."

Preserving the Dine heritage and language was a theme passed to Burnside by his parents and grandparents, who survived the 300-mile "Long Walk of the Navajo" in 1864 that forcibly removed the Navajo from their ancestral land.

Burnside got active with the American Indian Movement, or AIM, while studying at the University of California, Berkeley. He was among the AIM members who took over Alcatraz Island in 1969 to protest U.S. government policies toward Native Americans.

Nearly 60 percent of all Navajos live on the massive reservation that straddles Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, according to the federal government.

Reservations, Burnside said, "say to the world, 'We're not equal, that we're not wanted and that we don't have equal rights.' That has to change."

Additional Information:

Francis Burnside

What: The traditional Navajo healer, or hataalii, discusses the Dine (Navajo) culture.

When: 2 to 4 p.m. today

Where: Senator John Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District

Admission: $5 for Robert Morris University faculty and staff with a Freedom Card, free for students. All others pay $10.

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