Brian Burkhart, who joined the faculty of the American Indian Studies program in 2010, is delighted that his appointment has him interacting within a variety of disciplines that make full use of his academic training. Burkhart received his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Native American literature at the University of Northern Colorado, after which he earned his doctorate in philosophy, with a minor in religious studies, at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Burkhart credits his degree completion to “sheer will.” An enrolled member of Oklahoma’s Cherokee Nation who spent much of his life growing up on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Burkhart notes a 50 percent dropout rate among Native Americans within their first year of college. Unprepared for academic challenges and not knowing where to turn for help, he dropped out in his first semester.
After completing service with the National Guard, Burkhart traveled around the country, making his living as a musician on the powwow circuit. While he has never stopped performing at powwows and related events—he is currently a member of the local Southern drum group Bearwolf—Burkhart eventually found himself drawn back to school.
“I started back at the lowest of the remedial classes,” he said. “But that only made me more motivated and focused on succeeding.”
It was the “godfather of Native American studies,” Vine Deloria Jr., who encouraged Burkhart to pursue an academic career in the developing field. Deloria is widely credited with reviving Native American pride and activism, not least through his establishment of the nation’s first master’s degree program in American Indian Studies, at the University of Arizona. So when he told Burkhart that the movement needed people like him, who could teach American Indian Studies from a different perspective, Burkhart took the advice to heart.
“He said we needed to create a new conversation about (Native American lives) and tell a better, more complicated philosophical story,” Burkhart recalled.
In addition to teaching core courses in American Indian Studies, Burkhart and program coordinator Scott Andrews are working with the College of Humanities and the Institute for Sustainability to bring Native American perspectives on environmental justice to the coursework and minor. Burkhart would like to co-create a future course with the Department of Philosophy that would explore the intricacies and influences of Native American social, political and existential thought.
Burkhart, who previously taught for five years at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., particularly values his opportunities to mentor American Indian students, who often struggle with concepts of heritage, meaning and connection—concerns that strike at the very core of the philosophy discipline.
“Students come to (me) with issues of identity, trying to discover who they are and how they relate to that,” Burkhart said. He can’t imagine a higher purpose than helping American Indian students grappling with those essential questions, realizing Vine Deloria’s vision along the way.
—Teresa K. Morrison, College of Humanities