“I am a dreamer who dreams, sees visions, and listens always to the still, small voice. I am a trail-blazer.” ~ Susan La Flesche Picotte
Eight-year-old Susan La Flesche sat at the bedside of an elderly Omaha Native woman. Her tummy twisted as she watched the elder’s jaw clench from pain. “Where is the doctor? Has he not been summoned four times already?” Her hands twisted in her lap as the woman’s breaths came labored. Would she survive come dawn?
Sometime during the evening, the brilliant moon’s light spilled into the tipi’s open flap, calling for Susan to take a break. She left the woman’s side for a moment to listen to night sounds of coyotes calling to one another. They reminded her of the messenger she’d sent to retrieve the government hired physician who was supposed to service the Indians on the Omaha Reservation—all talk and no show. What was taking him so long?
Come morning, the elder’s faint breaths ceased to flow, and she passed away in agony. This event would set into motion young Susan’s vow to help her people. Especially when she found out the doctor refused to come because, “He preferred to hunt for prairie chickens rather than visiting poor, suffering humanity.”
His message was clear: “It was only an Indian.”
During the Omaha’s summer buffalo hunt in June of 1865, La Flesche was born to Chief Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche) and his wife, One Woman (Mary) in a tipi in the northeast corner of Nebraska Territory. She attended school there until age 14. Her father then sent his daughter to a Presbyterian mission school on the reservation where she learned English and became a devout Christian.
In order to retain her Omaha Identity, he also made sure she learned the tribe’s traditional songs, beliefs, customs and language.
Education was important to Iron Eye, and at the age of six, he asked Susan if she was going to simply be one of “those Indians” or get an education and be somebody in the world.
She decided to become somebody, graduating second in her class from the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, now Hampton University. She was fluent in English, her native Omaha tongue, French, and Otoe.
It was early October 1886 when 21-year-old Susan La Flesche first stepped off the train in Philadelphia. Her dreams were coming true, thanks to the elder who died in the tipi that one unforgettable night. Her father’s leg amputation from an untreated infection and her infant brother’s death drove the desire to learn medicine deeper.
“We who are educated have to be pioneers of Indian civilization,” she told the East Coast crowd during her Hampton graduation speech. “The white people have reached a high standard of civilization, but how many years has it taken them? We are only beginning, so do not try to put us down, but help us to climb higher. Give us a chance.”
A chance was all she needed.
Her chin up and wearing braids and calico, Susan was prepared to attend classes at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, separated from her family, remote prairie powwows, and summer buffalo hunts. Her first semester was packed with classes that included chemistry, anatomy, obstetrics, and general medicine.
Three years later, La Flesche earned her medical degree and was valedictorian of her class. By then she could suture wounds, deliver babies, and treat tuberculosis. However, as a woman, she was forbidden to vote, and as an Indian, she was not a U.S. citizen. But that did not stop her.
At the age of 24, Doctor La Flesche returned to the reservation to fulfill her destiny, soon becoming the sole doctor for 1,244 patients spread over 1,350 square miles.
Her goal was to one day build a hospital for her tribe. Until then, she would have to make house calls, traveling for hours to reach a single patient. During the winter of 1891, she treated over 100 patients every month, many of which were on foot in below zero temperatures, wrapped in a buffalo robe.
“My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night.”
Many of those patients were Omahas who rejected her diagnosis and questioned her training. Even though it broke her heart, she pursued her dreams. Eventually, they did trust “Doctor Sue” because, thanks to her father, she spoke their language and knew their customs.
Disease and broken bones were not all La Flesche battled.
Alcohol was an evil she would combat for years. Even with her husband, Henry Picotte, a Sioux from South Dakota, who eventually died from tuberculosis exasperated by his addiction, leaving her a widow with two small children.
But she fought.
“I know that I shall be unpopular for a while with my people, because they will misconstrue my efforts, but this is nothing, just so I can help them for their own good.”
~ Susan La Flesche Picotte
Doctor Sue convinced the Office of Indian Affairs to prohibit liquor sales in towns within the reservation boundaries.
And before she died in September of 1915 of degenerative bone disease, she solicited enough donations to build the hospital of her dreams in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska. It was the first modern hospital in Thurston County. It went on to serves as a drug and abuse treatment center.
The first Indian woman to become a physician, La Flesche Picotte was truly a woman trailblazer. A woman who inspires us all.
Photo of Le Flesche Courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society, Public Domain
I hope you enjoyed reading about the first Native American female physician. I was surprised to learn that many of Doctor Sue’s own people rejected her methods and diagnosis. What caught your eye?