A tangible feeling of nervous excitement fills the room. Around 100 of us – students, faculty, administrators, and guests – file one by one into Robert Morris University's Rogal Chapel.
To “honor the sun,” as we are told, we each do a clockwise lap around the room before taking a seat in one of the chairs that are situated in a circle around the room. In the center, scented smoke wafts from abalone shell as Francis Burnside walks from the front to the back of the chapel, an eagle’s feather in his hand, chanting to himself quietly.
Burnside, a “medicine man” who helped spark the Native American rights movement by occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969 is RMU’s current Rooney International Visiting Scholar. A hataalii, a practitioner of the sacred rites of the people who prefer to call themselves the Dine (pronounced di-NEH), Burnside lives in the Navajo Nation, a territory of 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. His father was one of the U.S. Marine Corps’s famed “code-talkers” during World War II – members of the Navajo people who transmitted telephone and radio messages in their native language during Pacific operations between 1942 and 1945.
Burnside was first approached about coming to RMU by Edward Karshner, an assistant professor of English studies and communications, who studied with the Navajo people and participated in their rituals during a visit to the Navajo Nation in 2008. Today, he invited the RMU campus community to join him so that he could share with us the ethical system of life known as the “Blessing Way.”
Seated in the 12 o’clock position of the circle, Burnside wears brown cowboy boots, black jeans, and a silky red shirt adorned with two vibrant feathers, one on each arm. Around his neck, a Western bolo tie.
The room is quiet. Electric.
Suddenly, the 67-year-old begins to speak, softly.
We have all come here, he says, in our own “walk of life.” Seated as we are, in a circle, we are one giant living cell, with a fire in the center, and each of us is an atom. “You are all sacred,” he says, “magnificent.” It is upon all of us, he adds, to honor and take care of the earth, from which everything comes.
“I don’t teach,” he says, believing that too often what we call teaching is merely forcing our ideas on others. “I share.” It’s our failure to share and live as one people, he says, that divides us as a species. “There are no enemies on this earth,” he says. We are all related. We are related to the trees. We are related to the stones.
Burnside asks us to pass the feather, or “fan” as he calls it, around the room as we share our names and hometowns. “When you mention your name,” he says, “it is a prayer unto itself, because you all have a sacred tongue, a sacred name.”
As the feather makes its way around the room, it amazes me what a diverse group of people we have here at RMU – people from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Iowa, California, Wisconsin, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, Nevada, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, and Alaska. Others from Germany, Turkey, Russia, and Finland. We are all different, but together we make one continuous circle. One campus.
As I sit and try to absorb the moment, I appreciate what a beautiful message Burnside has brought to us today. It’s one of sharing the earth and all its resources, of relationships and the ties that bind us all, of peace and calmness in quiet meditation, and of the beautiful differences between us.
He is a humble man, Burnside. “I am not the know-it-all,” he says. But I can’t help but feel great admiration for this healer and his quiet yet powerful wisdom. I leave with a feeling of peace and purpose I’ve not known for some time.
For more: Traditional Navajo healer is RMU's latest Rooney Visiting Scholar
—Valentine J. Brkich