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"Burkhart credits his degree completion to 'sheer will.' 'I started back at the lowest of the remedial classes,' he says. 'But that only made me more motivated and focused on succeeding.'"


Meet Two of the Newest Members of the College

Dr. Brian Burkhart
Photo courtesy of Brian Burkhart

Dr. Brian Burkhart, one of two new full-time College of Humanities faculty to arrive in the 2010/11 academic year, is delighted that his appointment in the American Indian Studies program 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 Ph.D. 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% 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 says. “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 AIS 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 recalls.

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 new Sustainability minor. And Burkhart would like to co-create a course with the Philosophy department 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 AIS students, who are often struggling 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 says. He can’t imagine a higher purpose than helping AIS students grapple with those essential questions, fulfilling Vine Deloria’s vision along the way.

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