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Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865 – 1915)

Susan La Flesche Picotte stands as a trailblazer in American history, marking several firsts in her remarkable career. She became the recipient of the first federal aid for professional education, a pivotal step that propelled her to become the first American Indian woman in the United States to attain a medical degree. Her legacy extends far beyond academic achievement; throughout her extraordinary journey, she dedicated herself to serving the needs of her community with unparalleled compassion and determination.

Born in 1865 to Chief Joseph "Iron Eyes" La Flesche and Mary "One Woman" Gale

on the lands of the Omaha Nation in what is now Nebraska, Susan La Flesche received her early education on the reservation. Her father, Chief Iron Eyes was the last recognized chief of the Omaha tribe. His advocacy for education and his efforts to foster relationships with white reform groups laid the groundwork for Susan's future endeavors. After being schooled on the reservation for several years, she was sent to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey, returning home at age 17 to teach at the Quaker Mission School on the Omaha Reservation for two years.

Growing up on the Omaha reservation, Susan, witnessed firsthand the devastating impact of colonialism, as European settlers encroached upon Indigenous lands, stripping away resources and rights. Amidst the poverty, disease, and deliberate denial of healthcare to Indigenous peoples, she recognized the urgent need for change. A pivotal moment in La Flesche's life occurred during her childhood when she witnessed the tragic death of a sick Native woman due to the refusal of local white doctors to provide care. This heart-wrenching experience served as her inspiration to pursue a career in medicine.

While working at the Quaker school, La Flesche attended to the health of ethnologist Alice Fletcher, who recognized her potential and encouraged her to pursue higher education. With Fletcher's support, she journeyed back East to complete her education and earn a medical degree. She graduated second in the class of 1886 at what is now Hampton University, a historically black school in Virginia. While at Hampton, she received guidance from the resident physician, Martha Waldron, who encouraged her to apply to the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), the nations first medical school for women. With the support of Fletcher and Waldron and scholarship funds from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and the Connecticut Indian Association, La Flesche embarked on her medical studies. In 1889, she shattered barriers by not only graduating a year ahead of schedule from the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania, but also achieving the top position in her class. She was now a physician, but she was not a citizen of the United States because she was a Native American and could not vote as a woman. But that did not deter her.

Armed with her hard-earned medical degree, La Flesche petitioned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and in June of 1889 was appointed as a government doctor for the Omaha Reservation. While her appointment has been viewed as a manifestation of white medical practices displacing indigenous ones, La Flesche nonetheless tended to countless individuals during numerous epidemics—including tuberculosis, cholera, and influenza—and became an indispensable figure in the community. Day after day, she traversed the vast 1,350-square-mile reservation, caring for over 1,200 individuals and making house calls from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Her residence, serving as both a home and an office, evolved into a central gathering place where she offered counsel on matters ranging from health to legal issues.

"I shall always fight good and hard, even if I have to fight alone." - Susan La Flesche Picotte

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte confronted the pervasive health disparities plaguing Native American communities, tackling issues such as rampant disease, suicide, mental illness, and alcohol abuse head-on. Leading temperance campaigns, she successfully lobbied the government to outlaw liquor sales on reservations.

Tragically, her own husband, Henry, a Yankton Sioux, succumbed to tuberculosis exacerbated by alcoholism in 1905. Despite her own declining health, she forged ahead, establishing the first privately funded hospital on a Native American reservation in 1913. Located in Walt Hill, Nebraska, the facility provided care to all individuals in need, irrespective of their tribal affiliation. Although the hospital ceased operations in 1940, its significance endures, with the building now recognized as a national historic landmark. More than a century after her passing at the age of 50 in 1915, the enduring impact of her endeavors is evident in the presence of modern healthcare facilities on reservations.

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Center

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