Susan La Flesche Picotte, MD
Updated: Nov 29, 2019
In honor of our Thanksgiving holiday in the US, I am presenting a Native American Indian who fought the Victorian stereotypes of race and gender to become the first Native American physician and steadfast advocate for the rights of her people.
Susan La Flesche was born in June of 1865, in the remote Northeastern Territory of Nebraska to parents of Indian and French, and Indian and Anglo Saxon descent. Her father, Joseph La Flesche, “Iron Eye” was a progressive thinker and saw assimilation as a tool to help his people survive. He became the leader of the Omaha tribe in about the year 1855. Her mother, Mary Gale, “One Woman,” held to her Indian roots more fiercely and refused to speak anything but Omaha yet encouraged her children to become educated.
When Susan was about 8 years old, she sat up all night with an old woman who was sick. The doctor had been sent for several times, each time stating he would be there soon but he never arrived. Susan watched the woman die a painful death without any medical care because, she surmised, “It was only an Indian and it did not matter. The doctor preferred hunting for prairie chickens rather than visiting poor, suffering humanity." It is said that this event motivated Susan to become a doctor.
Susan La Flesche was raised between the cultures of the Omaha Indian and the European white man’s world. She spoke the Omaha language with her parents and english with her sisters. Until she was 14 years old, Susan went to the mission school on the reservation run by Presbyterians and then Quakers. She learned the traditions of the Omaha and Osage cultures but did not receive an Indian name or the traditional tattoo on the forehead. Susan could quote Shakespeare and Bible scripture as well as tell the ancestral stories of her Omaha people.
Iron Eye sent Susan to the Elizabeth Institute in New Jersey for the equivalent of high school and later to the Hampton Institute in Virginia for college. Several Omaha attended the Hampton Institute which had been originally created as a black college. After graduating with honors from the Hampton Institute, instead of returning home to become a teacher or housewife, Susan pursued her goal of going to medical school.
Alice Fletcher, an ethnologist, anthropologist and social scientist had become a friend of the Le Flesche family through her study and work on the Omaha reservation. Once Susan was accepted at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, she approached Alice for assistance to pay for medical school. Alice introduced Susan to the Connecticut Indian Association, an auxiliary of the Women’s National Indian Association, a Christian women’s organization that promoted Victorian values of home, health, cleanliness and godliness. Susan wrote a letter to the association impressing upon them that she was in line with their mission statement. The association paid for Susan’s medical school tuition and expenses making Susan the first person in the United States to get financial assistance for higher education.
Susan graduated valedictorian and top of her class from medical school. She had offers to work in New York City and in Paris, but she turned them down to become the government physician at the Omaha Agency Indian school. The association continued to support and fund her early years of practice.
At 24 years of age, according to the History.com article, “she became the sole doctor of 1,244 patients over a massive territory of 1350 square miles. House calls were arduous. Long portions of her 20-hour workday were spent wrapped in a buffalo robe driving her buggy through blankets of snow and biting sub-zero winds with her mare, Pat and Pudge as companions. When she returned home, the woman known as “Dr. Sue” often found a line of wheezing and coughing patients awaiting her. La Flesche’s office hours never ended. While she slept, the lantern lit in her window remained a beacon for anyone in need of help.”
Susan not only administered to the sick (both white and Native American), she also taught hygiene, illness prevention, advocated for education, fought for land allotment for the Omaha people and was a passionate prohibitionist. Susan saw first hand how alcohol abuse led to the exploitation of Indian lands and the destruction of Indian families and culture.
Marrying Henry Picotte, a Sioux from South Dakota in 1894 and subsequently birthing two sons did not slow Susan down but it did, like many present day women, cause her guilt and exhaustion. Susan journaled about the societal pressures she grappled with as a working physician, wife and mother, often feeling like she did not do any of her roles justice. For Susan, juggling roles at times meant that her children accompanied her on those far away house calls.
Henry Picotte died of tuberculosis exacerbated by his alcoholism, making Susan’s fight for temperance and prevention of tuberculosis a personal one as well as a communal one. The battle she fought with the government agencies to get her sons their rightful land inheritance from their deceased father became the template she used for helping others claim their land and fight land fraud.
Susan's lifelong dream of building a hospital came to fruition just two years prior to her death in 1915 from bone cancer. Her modern hospital on the reservation in Walthill, Nebraska was built completely from donations. The majority of the funds she raised came from her east coast contacts, the Connecticut Indian Association and the Woman’s National Indian Association.
According to her biographer, UNL professor Joe Starita, “Susan believed that the purpose of life was to find a purpose, and then to find the courage to live out that purpose. That is what she did every day of her adult life. That’s her truth.”
Questions to ponder as you let Susan’s story sink into your depths…
A traumatic childhood experience motivated Susan to become a physician against great odds. How many of us had a pivotal childhood experience that influenced our chosen vocation?
Like a good mythical heroine’s journey, Susan had to leave her home and slay a few dragons before she returned home with treasure (i.e., medical skills, higher education, understanding of the white world, confidence and gumption) to share with her people. How can we share the treasures from our own transformative journeys with others?
We see a circle of women, including Alice Fletcher, the Connecticut Indian Association and the Women’s National Indian Association assisting Susan and helping her realize her dreams. Has there been a circle of women who lifted you up and helped you accomplish your goals? Are there women you have helped to succeed? How can we use the strength of a circle of women to help other women, especially marginalized ones, pursue a dream?
Susan La Flesche Picotte served as a bridge between two, often opposing forces...the Native American Omaha people and the European White Man. At times getting pressure and push back from both sides. Susan heard frequently throughout her life that she wasn't Indian enough or white enough. Which wise woman traits did she embody from a young age that helped her find her balance in order to be helpful to all she served?
For a full biography and other sources see the links below.
A Warrior of the People, a biography by Joe Starita