Born June 17, 1865, Susan La Flesche Picotte ignored what was expected of a Victorian Native American woman, to become the first female Native American doctor. Historyreaders.com tell us Susan was the daughter of bi-racial parents, who each had white fathers and Native mothers. Her father, Joseph La Flesche, also called Iron Eye, was chief of the Omaha Nation in the Nebraska Territory and both parents culturally identified as members of the Omaha Nation. During this period, European Americans were flocking to the plains and tensions were high among the Native American and European American populations. Because Susan’s parents were bi-racial, they each had experience outside of reservation life and made sure their children were familiar with Native and white life. Susan attended school at the Quaker mission school on the Omaha reservation, during which Susan witnessed a Native woman die after being refused care from a white doctor – a moment Changing Faces in Medicine, attributes to determining the course of Susan’s adult life.
In an effort to keep Susan assimilated, she was sent to New Jersey to finish school, afterwards returning home for a year to teach on the reservation. After a year, Susan continued her education at the Hampton Institute, the only higher learning institution that accepted Native students to “civilize them.” Graduates were expected to go home and teach or marry. Not content with these choices and heavily impacted by the experiences of her youth, Susan decided to go to medical school. Susan enrolled at the Women’s Medical College where, according to Changing Faces of Medicine, she finished a three-year program in two, and graduated the top of her class. Dr. Susan La Flesche (the Picotte would come later), graduated in 1889 making her the first female Native American physician in America at a time when most colleges would not admit women or Native peoples. To further understand how impressive this was, Susan did this decades before women could vote and Natives were recognized as citizens in their own country. Get it girl!
After graduating Dr. La Flesche returned to the Omaha Reservation to serve as the reservation physician, a government position. These were highly prestigious positions, rarely held by women and once again, according to nativepartnership.org, Dr. La Flesche was the first Native female to do this. She worked grueling hours, cared for thousands over several hundred square miles, managing to contain many contagious. Five years of this took its toll, and in 1893 she resigned to rest and recover and care for her ill mother (nativepartnership.org). The following year she married Henry Picotte and established a private practice where she treated both Native peoples and European Americans. Dr. La Flesche continued to lecture and educate on matters of sanitation a public heath, including temperance. During her time as the reservation physician, Dr. La Flesche was a firsthand witness to the rampant alcoholism. Her own husband was likewise afflicted. Her staunch opposition to alcohol being allowed on reservations caused a lot of controversy, but Dr. La Flesche was not a woman to back down and, encyclopedia.com says, the controversy did not deter her from her temperance work. After her husband’s death in 1905, Dr. La Flesche became a Presbyterian missionary to the Omaha and her diligent work in preventative health practices and modern sanitation for the Omaha, mended the relationships that had broken during her push for temperance (encyclopedia.com). In 1913 Dr. La Flesche achieved a lifelong goal, the opening of a hospital for the Omaha in Walthill, Nebraska.
Dr. Flesche served her community as a political activist as well, beginning largely in 1910. She went to Washington, D.C. to speak to Congress and advocate for Native citizenship (encyclopedia.com). For much of her life, Dr. Flesche had lived in both the Native and white worlds, choosing to ally herself with pro-temperance white politicians. In her later years, having served her tribe people for decades, Dr. La Flesche began to grow mistrustful of the government. Her distrust largely stemmed from an incident after her husband died regarding inheritance which the Government tried to give to a very distant, very drunk relative. It was only passed to her children when white references were provided (encyclopedia.com). Dr. La Flesche continued to be vocal in support of Native rights, citizenship and to care for her community until her death in 1915, after a three-year illness.
Susan La Flesche Picotte secured her place in history as the first female Native American physician, however, her lifelong contributions are even greater than even that amazing feat. Dr. La Flesche spent the entirety of the life striving for improvements for her gender and her people. She was a woman very much torn between the two worlds she was born to, Native and white, but ultimately used her personal struggles to empower others. As a bi-racial woman in a tumultuous time, she very much was and is an example of what it should, and does, mean to be American. She was an ethnically diverse woman who ultimately was able to draw on all her cultural backgrounds to improve her situation and the situations of those she served through her work as a doctor, teacher, mentor and advocate.
Written by Lori Champion (she/her) from Hickman, Nebraska. Follow her on Instagram! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.