She Embraced Her Culture and Science

The woman who would be called Beatrice Medicine was born as a member of the Sihasapa and Minneconjou Lakota People with the name Hinsha Waste Agli Win that meant "Returns Victorious with a Red Horse Woman." It was a powerful name to live up to, and Medicine certainly did.

Medicine was born on August 1, 1923, on the Standing Rock Reservation in Wakpala, South Dakota. The land is owned by the Great Sioux Nation and crosses both North and South Dakota.

Rates of high school graduation are low in tribal areas. Someone going on to college and getting a graduate level degree is rarer still. Yet Medicine would earn three degrees in anthropology over the course of her lifetime. Her BA came from South Dakota State University in 1945. She went back to school at the Michigan State University to earn a dual master’s in sociology and anthropology in 1954. It was not until 1983 that she finished her PhD at the University of Wisconsin.

During and between her pursuit of degrees, Medicine taught at multiple schools across the USA ranging from native community schools to colleges and universities. Over 30 universities employed her over the years. She admitted that she had a desire to roam and not settle down at one job. She also took part in social activism, particularly for the indigenous peoples across the US and Canada in or near the schools where she taught. She was called as an expert witness when the federal government investigated the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973. In 1977, her work with and on behalf of Native peoples resulted in her being named the Sacred Pipe Woman of the revived Lakota Sun Dance.

She was particularly interested in the lives of women and in education, crossing with racism and linguistic assimilation. She was critical of multiculturalism without frank acknowledgement of power and authority differences long before that was a common expectation in most scholarship.

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Medicine’s 2001 book, Learning to Be an Anthropologist and Remaining Native, talks about her non-traditional academic career. Her life and her academic career tackled the question of “heart of ‘being’ and ‘doing’ in anthropology” that has been part of it and other social sciences for generations. How can someone study a culture without fully understanding it as a member of it would? Yet, how can someone who is part of a culture be objective about it, as science demands? Did Medicine find that answer to this problem? Possibly not, but by addressing the issue every time she did research, she showed a positive way for later researchers to turn their scientific gaze toward their own people.

Medicine was elected to the Common Cause National Governing Board in 1984 to help the nonprofit group as it tried to hold elected officials accountable for their actions across the USA. From 1993-94, she accepted a position on the Women's Branch of Canada's Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in hopes of helping indigenous women and families.

Medicine’s work was recognized by several organizations. In 1991, Medicine received The Franz Boas Award for Exemplary Service to Anthropology from the American Anthropology Association. In 1996, she was given the Malinowski Award from the Society of Applied Anthropology. After her death she was given the George and Louise Spindler Award from the Council on Anthropology and Education (CAE) in 2005.

After officially retiring from academia, Medicine returned to live on the South Dakota side of the Standing Rock Reservation. There she helped the effort to build a new school and served on the school board. Medicine died suddenly during emergency surgery on January 6, 2006.

Her work lives on in the careers of her students but also through the establishment of the Bea Medicine Travel Award. Since 2008, the Native American Literature Symposium has offered the Beatrice Medicine Award for Scholarship in American Indian Studies for an outstanding essay and/or book in the field of Native American studies. This travel grant was established in 2009 by the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) to award $500 for up to four students of anthropology so they may attend the SfAA’s annual meeting.