As the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree, Susan LaFlesche Picotte was a shining example to tribal members everywhere. She proved it was possible to lift oneself out of the morass of the reservation system and live a useful life. However, in proving that point, Picotte literally worked herself into an early grave.
Susan LaFlesche, born on June 17, 1865 in northeastern Nebraska to her father, Joseph LaFlesche, also known as Iron Eye, chief of the Omaha tribe, and her mother, Mary, also known as The One Woman. For centuries, the Omaha lived unencumbered on the Great Plains, but like other Native American tribes, the expanding United States pushed them onto a reservation. It was not they wanted to live, and many had trouble adapting to their new, restrictive way of life. However, Iron Eye accepted it, because when he peered into the future, he knew that the old ways were fast disappearing. So he did not give either Susan or his other daughters the markings that indicated they were the children of a chief. He also called himself and his family by their white names.
As a child, Susan witnessed a tragedy that had a profound effect on her: A Native woman died because a white doctor refused to treat her. Then and there, Susan resolved to become a physician. At age 14, Susan and her sister Marguerite moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they attended the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies. When she returned to the reservation, she helped administer to the health of a white woman named Alice Fletcher, who encouraged her to get her medical degree. So Susan went back east, first to attend Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, and then, in October 1886, the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. In her ears was the voice of her father, who told her to study hard, and remember that she owed it to the Omaha people to return with this medical knowledge and help them.
Carrying the hopes of her entire tribe, Susan graduated at the top of her class in March 1889.
Unfortunately, Iron Eye did not live to see his daughter’s triumph. After she returned to the Omaha reservation in late 1889, the government soon realized she was an extraordinary young physician, and they appointed her to become the doctor for the entire Omaha tribe – over 1200 people. She was the only Indian ever appointed as a medical missionary by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions.
Thus began the odyssey of Susan LaFlesche whose practice became so large that she found herself constantly traveling across the Nebraska plains regardless of the weather. However, in helping others th their health, Susan neglected her own. After four years, the bones in her faced ached from the constant exposure to the searing sun, biting cold and relentless wind. She suffered from earaches, backaches, and headaches. At only 28-years-old, Susan felt like a woman three times her age. Finally, in October 1893, the exhausted woman reluctantly resigned as tribal doctor.
In 1894, Susan married Henry Picotte, a member of the Sioux tribe, and they moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, in the southern part of the Omaha reservation, and had two children, Carl and Pierre. Soon thereafter, Susan felt well enough to begin practicing medicine again and dispensing health advice. She fought fiercely for the Omaha, and one thing she repeatedly warned against was the evils of alcoholism. The campaign took on personal significance when her husband died of the disease in 1905. In 1906, she led a delegation to Washington D.C. to plead for a ban on alcohol on the reservation. This led to a stipulation that every property deed in Omaha communities would prohibit alcohol. In 1910, she again successfully lobbied the government for the Omaha’s right to manage the money that they received from the sale of their lands.
In 1913, Susan’s greatest triumph came when a hospital opened in the reservation town of Walthill – a hospital name in her honor, and one she relentlessly crusaded for, but by then her health was in a rapid decline. In 1915, she underwent two unsuccessful operations on her facial bones, but on September 18, 1915, Susan LaFlesche Picotte died just months after her 50th birthday. Her funeral mixed both English and the ancient Omaha language of Umonhon.
Iron Eye would have been proud of his daughter’s accomplishments.
Roberts, Russell, American Women of Medicine, Enslow Publishers, Inc.