Don Warne inherited his Lakota name, Pejuta Wicasa, from his grandfather. It means “medicine man,” and he earned it while studying traditional healing under his uncles on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He went on to earn a medical degree from Stanford and a master’s in public health from Harvard, and now is the director of NDSU’s Master of Public Health program and the only American Indian Public Health Resource Center in the nation. He’s a national leader in constant demand, especially when American Indian public health practice or policy is on the table. Warne the doctor projects intensity in the face of all the responsibility. When Warne the man speaks of bringing people together, the sacred in everyday ceremony or time with his family, the determined set of his jaw melts into a grin.
My uncles were very encouraging. They thought it was a good idea, that we need more of our own people going into medicine who can combine traditional culture and modern science. They would always tell me, “Never forget who you are because it is a challenge to maintain your identity as a Lakota man immersed in the non-Indian world.”
What I enjoyed about family practice was the connectivity to people and to community members and having a positive impact on people’s lives.
Doing that for a few years, I was recognizing very clearly that everything I was doing in the clinic was to address preventable issues, but I felt like I needed to work farther upstream.
It is an honor to be a part of someone else’s healing process. It’s not just a job, you know, it’s not a vocation. It is actually sacred work.
None of us is perfect.
I have learned that modern approaches to medicine and public health can be compatible with traditional perspectives, traditional approaches and tribal communities.
We don’t have to cross an ocean to find third-world health conditions. They are right here in North Dakota.
There are some amazingly strong people in the meekest of circumstances.
There just aren’t enough American Indian physicians and public health officials in the arena, so I am very passionate about American Indian health. A big challenge is having enough time to do all of that effectively.
I think that quite often we misunderstand each other. When there is misunderstanding, particularly across cultures, what we tend to see are assumptions made about either the perspectives or the motivations of others. Usually with improved communication and genuinely understanding where we are coming from, it turns out, for the most part, we are on the same page.
One area of my life that has been tremendously beneficial has been embracing ceremony. In that process of ceremony you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others, you can understand that we are all vulnerable.
I think we grow the most when we are enduring challenge.
I try not to take simple things for granted, like the start of each day. There are traditional ways of greeting the day and being thankful for every day and acknowledging it through even small ceremony or prayer.
There is a traditional story from the Northern Plains about three sisters who are walking along a river and they see babies in the water struggling to stay afloat. One sister jumps in and says, “We need to rescue these babies and pull them out of the water.” The second sister jumps in and says, “No. We need to teach these babies how to swim, so they can survive when they are in the water.” The third sister just kept walking, and the other two said, “Where are you going? Why aren’t you helping us?” And she said, “I am going to find out who is putting these babies in the water, and I am going to stop them.” That is public health.
If there are things that I could have learned earlier or done differently, I don’t know that I would because it is all part of the process.
In a number of arenas, there are decision makers and persons in places of authority who either don’t understand inequity or don’t care about it.
It is easy to be passionate about public health because there is so much to be done.
Wisdom is the ability to make the right decisions, and the right decisions not just for yourself personally, but for your family and for your community. Also, are you willing to do difficult things if it is going to improve the lives of those you care about? Knowing how to do that is wisdom.
As soon as we start to believe that the issues or the priorities are us as individuals, that is when things will fall apart.
Connection with family is the most important thing.
One of the more famous traditional healers and leaders was Sitting Bull. He said, “Let us put our minds together and see what life we can build for our children.”
There is an old saying, “You are only as happy as your saddest child.” I believe that.
I want our graduates to make a positive impact both in their own generation and for future generations.
It doesn’t feel like work. I love everything I am doing.
At the end of the day, it is kind of a wonderful feeling to be fulfilled and exhausted at the same time.
If what we are doing here can result in improved quality of life for multiple populations, then that would be a good result of a life’s work.