Bev Warne

Drawing on Rich Experiences

DSC00573 CR In 2002, Bev Warne, Oglala Lakota, MS, RN, became the director of the American Indian Students United in Nursing (ASUN) program at Arizona State University College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation. When she travels around the state recruiting new students into the program, she helps motivate them to consider a career in nursing by talking about the many exciting nursing jobs that are possible including the jobs she has had during her 45 years as a nurse. The many kinds of experiences that Warne has had include serving as a school nurse, an IHS public health nurse, a pediatric nurse, and a nurse in a clinic in Bangkok, Thailand.

Since 1990 Warne has been on the faculty of Mesa Community College, where she has participated in enhancing the nursing program, including cultural diversity initiatives. She initiated and developed the Community Health Advocacy Program designed for Native American students, and she has taught several nursing courses as well as other health-related courses.

In her pre-nursing course on culture and health, Warne invites guest speakers to talk about issues in different cultures. To help students better understand the health and disparity issues among American Indian people, she tells stories both about Indian people and about her own life.

“We have a very high rate of diabetes type 2,” she says. “One of the tribes in our state has the highest rate of any cultural group in the world. The tribe used to be an agricultural society with a river running through their land. That means hard work and healthy food. A river means fish and wild life for protein. They also had the spiritual cultural events that are embedded in an agricultural society, including the ceremonies for the spring, summer, fall, and winter solstice. These ceremonies were spiritually connected to the land, to the river to the gardening, and to the harvest. So they were a healthy people.

“Then the U.S. government built dams. The river dried up and the gardens went away. This created a lifestyle change. The physical activity connected with gardening and harvesting was gone, so people became sedentary. The reasons for celebrating the solstices went away. The government provided commodity food, which our bodies were not used to in the Old Way – cans of beef with 2 inches of yellow lard on top, cheese, white flour and later soda and candy. The people had gut-wrenching hunger so they were forced to eat the fat that made them feel full.

“The end result was type 2 diabetes and all the complications that accompany that. In addition there was spiritual grief associated with the loss of ceremony and the loss of life style. So depression and a whole array of consequences enter in.”

Warne asserts, “People need to know about the high rates of diabetes, alcoholism and suicide, but they need to know the reasons
why this is the situation.”

Forced Assimilation

Warne’s own story helps students better understand both the horrors of what the older generation went through with forced assimilation as well the courage and spirit that enabled Indian people, like Warne, not only to succeed but to become leaders and mentors of others.

“I’m Lakota,” says Warne. “My first language is Lakota. I didn’t learn to speak English until I went to a BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] boarding school. When my mother went to the same school they punished her and the other children if they spoke our language. The people at the school didn’t physically punish us for speaking our language, but they didn’t like it when we did.

“We wore little military-like uniforms and were marched everywhere. Our beautiful long hair was cut, including the long hair of the traditional boys. They assumed we had lice, so every Wednesday they’d march us to the basement where we had to fine comb our hair with kerosene that was in coffee cans on the tables.”

What kept Warne grounded and strong? “I had a wonderful beginning on the reservation in our extended family,” she declares. “We didn’t have material things, but I remember the warmth, support and belonging. My mother said that in those days I would gravitate to those who had been injured or sick. I seemed to know they needed someone at their side.

Gaining Confidence

When we left the reservation and I went to high school in Rapid City, I had another culture shock. It was a very racist town. We were conditioned to think that we weren’t college material so I decided to be a nurse’s aid and got a job at the local Catholic hospital.”

Warne wasn’t aware of her many gifts but two nurses helped her gain self-confidence. One was the wife of the owner of a restaurant where Warne worked as a dishwasher starting at age 13. The other was the nun who supervised her work as a nurse’s aid. Warne remembers, “ The nun told me, ‘You can become a nurse,’ When I told her that neither I nor my parents had money, she said that I was eligible for a scholarship.”

The nuns coached Warne so she was reasonably comfortable when a group of stern white men interviewed her for a competitive scholarship. Warne was given a scholarship and successfully completed the diploma program taught by the nuns who she described as “strict but kind”. After one year of work, she married and moved to Arizona where she has spent most of the rest of her life. After 16 years as a nurse, Warne returned to school for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Every June Warne returns home for the summer solstice. “I immerse myself in my language, my home, and my land. That’s how I get my spiritual strength. I used to take my sons with me. They continue to go. Both are very traditional and wear their hair long. Both work with Indian people – one as a physician, the other as a rehab specialist.”

Warne is aware of the importance of family and mentors in her career. In turn, she is providing a family and mentoring for her students.
This article was originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Bunky Echo-Hawk, Yakama/Pawnee.)


In 2008, Bev Warne received the Lifetime Achievement Award for her outstanding contribution as project director for ASUN.

In 2009, the Indian Health Service awarded a $1.7 million, 5-year grant to ASU college of Nursing and Health Innovation to continue the ASUN program. ASU was the only college of nursing to be awarded a grant for a baccalaureate program in a highly competitive application process. At that time, Warne reported that 47 Native American nursing students had graduated from the program since it began in 1990. She said, “ASUN graduates have provided a combined total of more than 100 years of nursing care to Indian people.”