The Lessons of Pejuta Wicasa

Don Warne, MD, MPH, a Lakota healer, is Pejuta Wicasa, literally “Medicine Man.” His words of wisdom reverbate with lessons for those of us who seek the soul of medicine.


Dr. Warne, an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Reservation, is the subject of a wonderful interview with Bonnie Horrigan in EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing. I was browsing online through old issues of EXPLORE and found this terrific piece from March, 2005. Bonnie is a phenomenal chronicler of the movers and shakers in integrative medicine, as witnessed in her book, “Voices of Integrative Medicine.” The interview touches on so many issues near the heart of integrative medicine, and it expands on several issues I highlighted in my post two months ago about the health legacy we are leaving our Native brethren.

Don Warne is a graduate of Stanford (MD) and Harvard (MPH) and has worked with the National Institutes of Health in Arizona to address health disparities for Native Americans. He eloquently describes the destruction of Native farming practices in the 1930’s in Arizona and its relationship to the disintegration of health and wellness. Essentially, local rivers were dammed by the US government in order to improve water supply to the growing (caucasian) Phoenix population. Not only were healthy food sources replaced by US Dept. of Agriculture refined sugar, white flour and canned meats (directly linked to a surge in diabetes and metabolic syndrome), the loss of life purpose stole the soul of the Natives there, leading them to depression, alcoholism and violence. As Dr. Warne notes, “So a lot was taken away, more than just the water.” Problems have only intensified since then. In fact, the average federal medical expenditure for the Indian Health Services is only $1800 per person per year; this compares unfavorably with the $3400 per person per year spent for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. “In other words,” Dr. Warne laments, “if you are an inmate in a federal prison, more money is spent on your healthcare than if you are a member of an American Indian tribe.”

So health is more than the presence or absence of disease – it’s also about human connection and purpose. Dr. Warne astutely observes that “modern medicine values confidentiality and privacy” while “in the traditional way, we valued family and community participation.” We have lost our ceremonies, our rituals, and we are all the poorer for it. He also points out that the medicine man in traditional Lakota culture was one of the community, connected in many facets of daily existence, and “on an equal level to the people he or she worked with.” Modern physicians often seek distance from their patients, both geographically and spiritually. This comes at a cost, I believe, to both. Traditional healers “did what they did because it was who they were and what they were good at – it was their calling.” Can we say the same for most physicians today?

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