Louise M. Burkhart

Louise M. Burkhart

Professor Emerita
Department of Anthropology
CV363.1 KB


Arts & Sciences 203

PhD, Yale, 1986

Louise Burkhart

Interests: Ethnohistory/Historical ethnography; colonialism and evangelization; symbolic, interpretive, and postmodern anthropology; Mesoamerican religions (pre-Columbian, colonial, and contemporary); textual analysis; Mesoamerican history and ethnology; Native North American and Mesoamerican literatures; Nahuatl catechistic and devotional literature; folklore, folk narrative, fairy tales; Nahuatl language; and pre-Columbian and Indo-Christian art.

Areas: Mesoamerica, North America

Research Statement

Professor Burkhart investigates the ways in which Indigenous Mexicans experienced, engaged with, and manipulated the Christian texts and teachings introduced under Spanish colonial rule. She works primarily with materials in the Nahuatl (Aztec) language, often produced by literate Native people working under varying degrees of priestly supervision. These materials complicate notions of "conversion" or "syncretism" by documenting the varied, sophisticated, and often subtly nativistic innovations that characterized new, Indigenous Christianities. Her largest body of work deals with Nahuatl religious theater, a rich and diverse genre including morality plays, Passion plays, stagings of saints' legends and other biblical stories, and adaptations of Spanish Baroque dramas. Other research foci include the collision between Roman Catholic and Indigenous moral systems, and the development of Nahua devotion to the Virgin Mary.

Her most recent major publication is Painted Words: Nahua Catholicism, Politics, and Memory in the Atzaqualco Pictorial Catechism, co-authored with Elizabeth Hill Boone and David Tavárez (Dumbarton Oaks, 2017). This book, as well as her prize-winning 2014 article in the Hispanic American Historical Review and her Presidential Address in Ethnohistory, took a new look at pictographic catechisms, interpreting them as mid-colonial assertions of political legitimacy by Nahua elites, rather than tools of the early missionary friars. She also recently published In Citlalmachiyotl/The Star Sign: A Colonial Nahua Drama of the Three Kings, with Albany Ph.D. student Abelardo de la Cruz and John Sullivan (University of Warsaw, Facultad de Artes Liberales, 2017), along with a Nahuatl-only version entitled simply Citlalmachiyotl. “The Star Sign” is the first colonial Nahuatl text ever published in a standardized orthography directed at supporting Nahuatl literacy among contemporary speakers of the language and giving them access to their literary heritage.

Professor Burkhart’s current research centers on a large digital publication project devoted to Nahuatl and Spanish Passion plays and related documents from late-colonial Mexico. Mexican archbishops and the Inquisition sought to suppress this performance tradition, and hence a trove of plays and reports entered archives in the mid-eighteenth century. Her collaborators are Daniel Mosquera (Union College), Rebecca Dufendach (Getty Research Institute), Abelardo de la Cruz (UAlbany), and Nadia Marín-Guadarrama (UAlbany). An early version of the website Passion Plays of Eighteenth-Century Mexico is online now, with one Spanish and one Nahuatl play; other texts will be added as they are prepared. The Nahuatl plays are presented in paleographic and standardized transcriptions and English translations; we hope to add Spanish translations at some point. Burkhart’s more in-depth study of the Nahuatl plays, now in planning stages, will be published as a book, Staging the Passion in Eighteenth-Century Nahua Mexico.