“Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children” – Tatanka Iyotake (Sitting Bull).
Sitting Bull’s quote hangs just outside of Bev Warne’s office in the Native American Nursing Education Center so both the students can see it and Warne can be reminded of it. The quote, one of Sitting Bull’s many famous phrases, is central to both Warne and the entire NANEC program that she is responsible for creating.
“You notice how he doesn’t say minds and hearts—that’s the thinking part of our value system that we were all taught early on,” Warne said. “Let’s put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children—that’s what we are doing here.”
For the few that may not be familiar, Warne is a South Dakota legend who was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame earlier this fall. Having spent most of her professional career in Arizona, working to improve the outcomes of Native American students in the nursing program, she returned home after retiring from Arizona State University in 2009. Her life’s work having been committed to improving the lives of Native Americans, Warne couldn’t stay retired for long.
“I flunked retirement,” Warne joked.
In 2015, she was asked to create the same type of program for Native American nursing students attending South Dakota State University that she did at ASU. At the time, Native American nursing students had extremely low retention rates and improving student outcomes were a top priority for the university. Since the creation of NANEC, retention rates have improved and Native American students are thriving in the College of Nursing’s Rapid City based program.
That’s the short, surface level summary of Warne’s career. There is much more to her story.
Beverly Mae Stabber was born in 1939 near a creek on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Her first language was Lakota and her early years were full of traditional Lakota values. In the mornings, she would awake to her grandfather drumming. Her grandfather, Kills on Horseback, taught Warne the seven traditional Lakota values through storytelling.
“He would sing a story about one of the traditional values that he wanted us to learn and live by as Lakota people,” Warne said. “Those seven values are concepts of living a life of integrity and humility.”
The seven Lakota values are fortitude, wisdom, courage, generosity, honor, respect and humility. The stories her grandfather sang were about individuals or animals that implemented a value by action. At the same time, grandfather was teaching us how to think critically, Warne said.
“That’s how I live my life—based on those values,” Warne explained.
When her father returned from fighting in World War II, the family packed up and moved north to Rapid City in hopes of a job. They lived in a tent along the banks of Rapid Creek, in what is now known as Founders Park. Some remember this as “Osh Kosh Camp,” others—like Warne—remember it as “Indian Camp.”
One day, Warne’s father took her into Rapid City. They were walking downtown when Warne saw a sign that read in big, bold letters “NO INDIANS ALLOWED.” Warne was nine at the time and could read—she knew exactly what the sign meant.
“I pointed to the sign and asked, ‘Why?’ and my father said something really wise,” Warne said. “He said, ‘it’s because they don’t know us.’ I didn’t appreciate that until later on.”
Reflecting back on that moment in downtown Rapid City, Warne remembers feeling full of rage when she first saw the sign. She also thought about her father.
“He had just come home from World War II for Pete’s sake,” Warne said. “My feeling was for him and not for myself.”
Later, Warne felt succumbed by sadness.
“Sadness that people can do this and say this to other people,” Warne explained.
The third feeling was that of curiosity, Warne said. She had only grown up around—and had known—Lakota people up to that point in her life. Who were these other people?
Her curiosity led her to the library because “she had heard that’s where books were.” Warne walked into the old Rapid City Public Library and encountered a librarian.
“Can I help you?” the older librarian said to a then young Warne.
Warne, at the time, was intimidated. The sign had taught her that Lakota people like herself were not always welcome in places like the library and she had a fear—whether it be through words or action—that she might get hurt.
“But I had courage, because I learned courage from my grandpa when he told stories about somebody that was brave enough to do something,” Warne explained.
The librarian helped Warne get a library card, explained to her what a library card could do, and then led her over to the biography section of the library, because Warne was interested in reading about other people and cultures.
“She was a very good teacher, and very kind and approachable,” Warne said. “Looking back, she was a mentor of mine.”
In 1959, Warne graduated from Rapid City High School and subsequently enrolled in the nearby St. John’s McNamara School of Nursing. She had always dreamt of becoming a nurse and enrolling in school was the first step.
Becoming a nurse was not without its challenges, however. Warne ran into some of the same problems that she had encountered in her early years in Rapid City. As a student nurse, a patient asked Warne to leave the room because she was Native American. Sister Benedict, another mentor of Warne’s, would not let that happen. Sister Benedict first spoke to the patient in private, then to Warne.
“You must shore up your courage and get back in there,” Sister Benedict said to Warne.
The situation was another gentle reminder of the many stories of courage from her grandfather.
Sister Benedict did more than just provide Warne with inspiring words. She helped her receive a scholarship and supported her throughout her time at St. Johns. In 1962, Warne graduated, became a registered nurse, and began traveling the world with her husband, James, who worked in international business.
The couple traveled the world, making stops in Thailand and Mexico. Two sons also joined the family, Don and Jim. Bangkok, where the family lived for three years, was one of Warne’s favorite stops.
“It was beautiful there,” Warne said. “The foliage and the flowers. The Thai people are so gentle and gracious.”
The family eventually settled in Arizona, in the Greater Phoenix area, where James had gone to high school and college. Bev continued in her nursing career, earning both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing from nearby ASU. As a registered nurse, she worked in a variety of environments, including inpatient clinics, home health, school health, and public, private and military hospitals. She also taught nursing and Native American culture classes at a nearby community college. Later in her career, she helped develop a program at ASU called “the American Indian Students United for Nursing” project.
The program started in 1990 through a grant from the Indian Health Service and aimed to help assist Native American/Alaska Native students graduate with a bachelor’s or graduate degree in nursing. Students were assisted through scholarships, academic support services and cultural engagement activities. The program was very successful, increasing the retention and graduate rate of Native American and Alaska Native students at ASU.
Warne served as director of the ASUN program up until her retirement in 2009. Her career, which spanned more than 40 years up to this point, helped countless students succeed.
Native American Nursing Education Center
After returning home to South Dakota, Warne started receiving inquiries from administrators at SDSU about possibly returning to work. SDSU’s College of Nursing was having trouble retaining Native American students in their program and knew something had to be done. In 2015, the retention rate hovered around 64%—far from a positive number. As unacceptable as it was—it was only a number—it didn’t paint the entire picture. The numbers signaled that Native Americans were not being represented in a highly important field, in a state with a large population of Native Americans. This was very troubling for someone like Warne, who had spent her entire career as a nursing professional and knew how important representation in the profession was.
The College of Nursing’s dean at the time, Nancy Fahrenwald, had visited Arizona and the ASUN program. She had seen the success it had in retaining Native American nursing students. She asked if Warne could help create a similar program in South Dakota.
Warne, of course, was willing to do so, especially since this would directly affect her own tribe, the Oglala Lakota. She did have one condition, however.
“I don’t want anyone to micro-manage me,” Warne explained. “I want the freedom to do what I know we can do. The results will come.”
And the results did come. Only a few years into the program and the retention rate has shot up more than 30 points, to 96%. How was Warne and the NANEC team so successful, so quickly?
Simply, she knew what was wrong. Students weren’t dropping out because of the classes or the tests or the time commitment, they were dropping out because of the intersecting effects of poverty.
“If you can think about a family living from hand to mouth, and here’s the mom going to school and trying to get out of poverty living. Then an emergency happens, like a child gets sick or something unusual in their budget,” Warne explained. “She has a choice: she can put in more hours into working to earn money, drop out of school for a while and come back. But they never come back because it’s very hard to do that.”
One of the first things Warne did as coordinator of the NANEC program was to create an emergency fund for situations exactly like the one described above. One time a student came to Warne, explaining to her that she had no money for food. Warne reached in her pocket and gave her the money she needed. Later, she found out that giving students money was against policy.
“I was troubled,” Warne said. “Of course I was going to give her the money. If a student comes and tells me they don’t have money for groceries, I’m going to do it. They can throw me in jail if they want to.”
Emergency funds were secured, and a disbursement process is in place to support NANEC students.
Warne also knew she couldn’t do this alone. So she went on a trip, to each of the reservations in western half of South Dakota, recruiting people who she knew and trusted to be on the NANEC Advisory Board.
“That was exciting for me to lay the groundwork for what I knew would become a success,” Warne said.
Two more “retired” Native American Registered Nurses have joined the staff at NANEC and are mentors to the growing numbers of Native American student nurses.
“Ultimately, we can help make an impact on the current health disparities of the Native American people,” Warne said. “We can help make a healthier and better life for future generations.”
Other people have asked Warne what she and the other mentors have done to be so successful with the NANEC program.
“We act naturally,” Warne explained. “This is like tiospaye here, which means extended family. We have that feeling of being culturally grounded and we try to create a place of ‘belonging’ for students that is obviously needed.”
Located off Mt. Rushmore Road, near downtown Rapid City, the NANEC building has a sense of peace surrounding it and is often filled with a hint of sage, which Warne burns often. The building is welcoming to all but is designed for Native students to feel comfortable and secure. There are quiet rooms to study in and Wicozani Otipi— a welcoming room, outfitted with Lakota art and quilts—for students to relax and recenter in. The room is also equipped with snacks and drinks—students know the room is always a place where they can get something to eat.
“I don’t know what I would have done without this place,” said Alex Smiley, a NANEC student scheduled to graduate in December. “This place really helped me get to where I am now.”
Smiley’s story is a familiar one. A Kadoka native with ties to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, she left for school, only to drop out after struggling to adjust to a new environment. With little money and little idea of what she wanted to do, she heard about NANEC from a friend and decided to give things another try.
“This place got me back on my feet and helped get through a hard time in my life,” Smiley said.
Smiley, who currently works as a RN for Monument Health in Rapid City, is excited to graduate. She hopes to continue working as a nurse in South Dakota.
“There’s more like her in our student population,” Warne said, referring to Smiley. “They want to stay home and give back.”
For other students, like Dena Colhoff, the NANEC building is the perfect place to go and knock out some homework. The quiet, calm, relaxed environment allows Colhoff to study in peace on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she doesn’t have class.
“I take my daughter to school, go for a walk and then come here to do homework,” Colhoff said. “It can be hard to study at home with so much going on. It’s really nice to have this place to come to.”
At one time, Colhoff was a fire management officer in the Black Hills. But when her mother got sick, she decided to quit her job to be with her at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
“I was just sitting there and I had nothing to do so I would just read and read,” Colhoff said. “Then the nurses started inviting me to seminars I was interested. I thought nursing was something I might be interested in.”
With two kids of her own, Colhoff got back to work after returning from Minnesota but she kept feeling a pull towards being a nurse. The pull became so strong that she decided to resign and began taking classes to get into nursing school.
“This is the path I’m going to go down, I’m not going to take any detours,” Colhoff said. “I’m dedicating everything to this and I’m glad I have my family behind me.”
For students who visit the NANEC building—like Colhoff and Smiley—Warne is not only seen as a mentor, but also as a friend—someone who they can always go if times are tough or if they just need someone to talk to.
“I’m so thankful for Bev and the other mentors here,” Smiley said. “I truly cannot thank them enough.”
Hall of Fame
Warne was nominated for the South Dakota Hall of Fame by her classmates at the St. Johns McNamara School. After more than 50 years of work, dedicated to improving the lives of Native Americans and advancing the nursing profession, the nomination was beyond deserved. During the Sept. 10 ceremony in Chamberlain, South Dakota, each of the Hall of Fame inductees had a chance to give an acceptance speech. Warne was the last go.
In her speech, she spoke on her time in the nursing profession and thanked the family and friends who were along for the ride. Her sons, both of whom who have taken after their mother and championed change for Native Americans, were sitting in attendance.
She also took a moment to reflect on those words that her father had told her during her first visit to downtown Rapid City.
“It’s because they don’t know us,” her father had said to her.
“I would venture to say the majority of people still don’t know us,” Warne told the crowd. “So we need to do something about that as a collective of people here tonight.
“We need to learn about each other and appreciate each other.”
She walked off stage to a standing ovation. It’s hard to say if there was a dry eye in the building.