Navajo healer Francis Burnside shares culture, traditions
By Chris Ramirez
Published: 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."
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.