Susan La Flesche
On March 14, 1889, Susan LaFlesche (Omaha/French) made history by becoming the first Native American woman doctor, graduating at the top of her 36-woman class. At just twenty-four years old she returned to the Omaha Reservation to serve her community. This was a time when men were publishing journals claiming women’s brains were smaller and that they should be barred from attending college because the stress would harm their reproductive organs. Despite the climate of severe oppression of Natives and women, Susan persevered.
An experience Susan had at just eight years old fueled her ambition to become a doctor. She was at the bedside of an elderly woman in agonizing pain, waiting for the white agency doctor to arrive. Four times, a messenger was sent. Four times, the doctor said he’d be there soon. Not long before sunrise, the woman died. The doctor never came. The episode would haunt La Flesche for years to come, but it would motivate her, too. “It was only an Indian,” she would later recall, “and it not matter.”
None of the challenges of her education could fully prepare La Flesche for what she encountered upon her return to the reservation as physician for the Omaha Agency, which was operated by the Office of Indian Affairs. Soon after she opened the doors to her new office in the government boarding school, the tribe began to file in. Many of them were sick with tuberculosis or cholera, others simply looking for a clean place to rest. She became their doctor, but in many ways their lawyer, accountant, priest and political liaison. So many of the sick insisted on Dr. Susan, as they called her, that her white counterpart suddenly quit, making her the only physician on a reservation stretching nearly 1,350 square miles.
She dreamed of one day building a hospital for her tribe. But for now, she made house calls on foot, walking miles through wind and snow, on horseback and later in her buggy, traveling for hours to reach a single patient. But even after risking her own life to reach a distant patient, she would often encounter Omahas who rejected her diagnosis and questioned everything she’d learned in a school so far away.
Over the next quarter-century, La Flesche fought a daily battle with the ills of her people. She led temperance campaigns on the reservation, remembering a childhood when white whiskey peddlers didn’t loiter around the reservation.
La Flesche again shattered stereotypes by continuing to work after her 1894 marriage to Henry Picotte (Lakota), from South Dakota, and the birth of their two boys at a time when women were expected to be full-time mothers and home makers. Despite her tireless efforts to wean her people away from alcohol, her own husband slipped in, eventually dying from tuberculosis amplified by his habit.
But she kept fighting as single mother. She opened a private practice in nearby Bancroft, Nebraska, treating Natives and non-Natives alike. She persuaded the Office of Indian Affairs to ban liquor sales in towns formed within the reservation boundaries. She preached hygiene and prevention along with the healing power of fresh air and sunshine. And before she died in September 1915, at the age of 50, she solicited enough donations to build the hospital of her dreams in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska, the first modern hospital in Thurston County.
And yet, unlike so many male chiefs and warriors, Susan La Flesche was virtually unknown beyond the Omaha Reservation until 2017, when she became the subject of Starita’s book and a PBS documentary titled “Medicine Woman.”