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This fall, Hamilton welcomed Brianna Burke as a visiting associate professor of environmental studies and the first faculty fellow hired as part of the College’s new interdisciplinary initiative focused on Native and Indigenous studies.

For the past decade, Burke’s teaching and research have explored the connections among environmental justice, American Indian studies, climate change, and animal studies. She was born on Macy reservation in Nebraska, home of the Omaha Nation, and earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Tufts University following her undergraduate career at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt. While teaching at Hamilton, Burke will remain an associate professor of American Indian studies and environmental humanities in the English Department at Iowa State University of Science and Technology, where she has taught for the last 12 years.

Brianna Burke Brianna Burke
Hamilton magazine asked Burke about her background, what brought her to Central New York, and what she hopes to accomplish while here. (Responses edited due to space.)
What initially sparked your interest in Native American and Indigenous studies?

When I was born, my parents were living with an Omaha family and had been for some time. As a kid, I was raised by that family — particularly my grandmother — while my parents worked. I went to dances and ceremonies and was raised in an American Indian church, which gave me a completely different worldview and background from so many other kids. Throughout college and graduate school, advisors and professors encouraged me to pursue studying Native and Indigenous peoples because of this background, and I came to see that I am a good translator, can be a good advocate, for American Indian peoples. I also feel a duty to the community that raised me and the tremendous gifts they gave me, and I try to honor them in the work that I do.

Was there a moment or experience that prompted you to pursue this field in tandem with environmental studies?

I have always been interested in environmental issues. I was raised with a traditional worldview where the world operates according to different principles than most Americans are raised to understand — everything is alive and sentient and therefore has rights, and I’m just one piece of a great big puzzle. There isn’t a special quality that makes humans more special than or ascendant to any other species. I became interested in environmental justice in particular when I realized that the people who raised me did not have access to their sacred places. Their sacred place was behind a fence in the nearby farmer’s field, and they had to ask permission to go there. The river that ran through their lands was dammed, and they did not get any proceeds from the electricity it generated. I learned very early that access to place, “resources,” and rights were not equally distributed — that racism and inequality dictate how these things are distributed. 

What aspects of this position piqued your curiosity?

I wanted to grow professionally and work in service of a community. I’ve always been a community builder, so being able to do that here on campus and with local communities interested me right away. Hamilton is on land that traditionally belonged to the Oneida Nation, and it began as the Hamilton-Oneida Academy; the relationships at the foundation of this institution should be honored and healthy.

Since I am a Fellow here, teaching is just one component of my job. I am also building connections between the many faculty teaching Native and Indigenous studies on campus, co-teaching Native and Indigenous studies content in any course that will have me, and creating campus-wide programming to bring Native and Indigenous speakers, artists, and activists to campus to work with students.

Why is it important for academia and society as a whole to engage with and understand Native American and Indigenous perspectives?

I trace climate change back to colony and empire, that set of ideologies and the vast reordering of ecologies that happened as a result. If we’re going to meet this crisis with any kind of understanding, we have to trace it back to its roots and invite all voices to the table. As a country, we have not done that. In particular, we are going to need Indigenous nations and their leadership. To give one small example: In the United States, American Indian reservations are the most biodiverse pockets of our country. When we’re thinking about species, extinction, and conservation, we are going to have to rely on the friendship of those nations to help us heal this land and rebuild biodiversity.

In the United States, American Indian reservations are the most biodiverse pockets of our country. When we’re thinking about species, extinction, and conservation, we are going to have to rely on the friendship of those nations to help us heal this land and rebuild biodiversity.

Brianna Burke Visiting Associate Professor of Environmental Studies
What courses will you teach and why did you choose those?

All of my classes reside at the nexus of Native and Indigenous studies, environmental studies, and literature. This fall I am teaching Indigenous North American Literature. In the spring, I will teach Decolonizing the Anthropocene and Multispecies Kinship. The best way to learn about anything is through stories: we are a species that tells stories, that creates stories and makes them material in the world; who we are, how we behave, how we see — as individuals and as a society — are rooted in the stories we tell about ourselves and the world.

What are your goals?

To be of service to this community and to the Oneida Nation, to help build programming across the curriculum, so that students encounter Native and Indigenous studies or issues in multiple courses that they take. And simply to make relationships stronger — to honor the land acknowledgment statement in practice on campus on a daily basis.

Other institutions out west have started to build these kinds of relationships and initiatives, but the fact that are about eight to 12 institutions elsewhere that want to hire someone to do what I’m already doing here shows that Hamilton is at the forefront of this. Our country is at a pivotal moment in which there is an upswell of support for some kind of reckoning, similar to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation. This momentum could peak or it could fade, and I hope that what we’re doing here at Hamilton is taking advantage of that peak and maybe even helping it gain momentum.

In what ways has your enthusiasm evolved since arriving on College Hill?

What I’ve noticed since arriving at Hamilton is that the faculty seem eager to keep growing into the 21st century and to ensure their students are equipped to meet the demands of a new age. One of those demands is decolonization and how we deal with this legacy of colony and empire that we have all inherited literally as it's crumbling around us. I’ve also received a lot of institutional support and professional mentorship that I feel lucky to have and which I would not have gotten elsewhere. I’m able to work with great people pursuing what they love, and I get to work with super smart, motivated students. It’s a gift.

Published in Fall 2023 Hamilton Magazine

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