Though her story is relatively unknown, Susan La Flesche’s legacy of hope and healing stands the tests of time.
Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in a tipi during a tumultuous time in 1865, an era when Native Americans were grasping to hold onto any shred of their traditional ways of living.
Yet Susan lived her life in a mostly westernized way. She went to boarding school and college and she died after owning property and having a robust career as the first female Native doctor.
Susan’s father, Joseph La Flesche, or Iron Eyes to his people, was chief of the Omaha Nation. When white settlers came to present-day Nebraska, he knew their way of life was going to change forever. He stressed education and assimilation to his tribe and his family.
“It matters not where one looks, now one sees white people,” Iron Eyes wrote. “His (the Indian’s) only chance is to become as the white man.”
Susan became a cultural broker between the white world and the Omaha tribe through her work as a tribal activist, a missionary and most importantly, the reservation doctor.
“She had a foot in each world,” said Dennis Farley, great-nephew of Picotte. “She followed some traditional ways, and she fit in with the Euro-American elite too. She floated between the two worlds. It must’ve been a confusing, tough role for Susan.”
Susan’s legacy is apparent on the Omaha Reservation: Her turn-of-the-century jade clapboard home and her white hospital persevere in Walthill, Neb., but her story remains largely untold.
Ask a random slew of Walthill reservation high school students about Susan, and they’ll stare with blank faces. Few will even recognize her name.
“We need streets named after her, we need her life to be taught in schools, we need her attitude about education and helping people to permeate throughout this reservation,” said Vida Stabler, the woman who lives in Picotte’s former home. “She could be a role model to our young people, but no one knows her … her story.”
Vida Stabler would like more people knowing who Susan LaFlesch Picotte was. The research that has been done on the native woman was very revealing, and Vida feels that she was newsworthy.
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On New Year’s Day in 1887, Susan rummaged through Philadelphia department stores, awed by the lavish dresses and luxurious displays. She was fitted for a dress and wrote home to her sister Rosalie about her experiences.
“I’ve become a lady of fashion,” she wrote.
But in the same letter, she also wrote about her yearning for a pair of new moccasins, which she missed so much.
Susan adapted well to East Coast schooling. She attended the Elizabeth Institute in New Jersey as a child and later went to Hampton College. The young Susan was thin, barely over 5-foot-5 and wore calico dresses, her hair in braids. She left the traditional Omaha lifestyle by the time she was 10.
She was homesick often, but one class, human anatomy, took her mind off the Nebraska prairies. She was fascinated with the skeleton, how people were put together and why they got sick.
At home, she saw people falling ill and dying under the watch of doctors who did not care about her people.
Vida Stabler studied Susan Laflesche Picotte in order to portray her in a play. Vida read about Susan and began to embrace the things she stood for.
As a young girl, she went to comfort a sick Omaha woman. The woman grew increasingly weak throughout the night, and Susan sent a messenger to get a doctor four times. The doctor promised to come each time.
He never showed up, and the woman died in agony.
“It was only an Indian and it did not matter,” Susan bitterly recalled to a reporter later in her life. “The doctor preferred hunting for prairie chickens rather than visiting poor, suffering humanity.”
Two other tragedies inspired Susan to reach for medicine: Her father lost his leg because of an untreated infection and her brother died in infancy.
When she was 6, her father took her and her sisters aside and asked them, “My dear young daughters, do you always want to be simply called ‘those Indians’ or do you want to go to school and be somebody in the world?”
“From that moment,” Susan wrote, “I determined to make something useful of myself.”
Many women of the era were becoming teachers, but Susan wanted to do more. As a physician she would directly impact her people by working in their homes, and she would gain more personal satisfaction from the work. She dreamed of building her own hospital on the reservation.
Susan was insistent on attending medical school, but she faced two problems: funding and negative societal attitudes.
With the help of a Connecticut women’s group and the government, Susan received $167 in tuition money, a sizeable amount each year The Connecticut Indian Association provided her with clothes, food and lodging.
It was the first time the government had given any assistance to a Native person for higher education.
But it came at a cost.
Commissioner of Indian Affairs John D. C. Atkins hoped Susan would become an “instrument of change,” undermining the traditional medicine men’s influence on the tribe.
Susan excelled in school. She graduated at the top of her class of 36 at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania.
At graduation, Professor James Walker spoke lavishly about Susan’s accomplishments.
“Her courage, consistency and ability has brought her this far in the fulfillment of a desire to see her people independent,” Walker said.
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After graduating and taking a yearlong internship at the hospital in Philadelphia, Susan returned to the reservation to serve her people. She begged to be the reservation doctor but was turned down. She instead took a job at the school treating the children in August 1889.
Her goals were simple, but they proved to make significant changes for the tribe. She promoted the importance of cleanliness, order and ventilation, how to take care of their bodies as well as care for their souls.
“I’m not accomplishing miracles,” she wrote to her sisters, “but I’m beginning to see some of the results of better hygiene and health habits. And we’re losing fewer babies and fewer cases to infection.”
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In late 1889, Susan finally began her job as the reservation doctor[AJL1] , but few trusted her. She had been indoctrinated by the white ways, but the nearest doctor was 18 miles away. She was the best thing they had.
Her first case squelched skepticism amongst the Omaha people. She cured an 8-year-old Omaha boy of what accounts say was an undescribed “childhood ailment[AJL2] .” The next day she went to check on the boy: He was playing happily in a creek.
The boy’s rapid recovery won her “no end of fame,” according to Susan.
Soon Omahas were flocking to her. Business was booming. She was even beginning to treat some of the white people from neighboring communities – they trusted her more than any male doctor.
Many would try to fit into her miniscule office, a 12-by-16 building that had enough room for a counter, shelves stocked with drugs, and a small space for magazines, books and games. It functioned not only as a doctor’s office but also as a community meeting place.
Her wages and medical goods were just as meager as her workspace.
When the government ran out of supplies to give to the reservation hospital, she spent her own money for medicine and supplies, even though she earned only $500 a year – more than 10 times less than what Army and Navy physicians were making at the time.
Yet she worked harder than most physicians out there, according to Omaha Tribe historian Dennis Hastings.
“My office hours are any and all hours of the day and night,” Susan once told her superiors. At night, Susan would light a lantern and keep it in her window – a signal for ailing families that she was there to help.
During the winter of 1891, Dr. Sue saw more than 100 patients each month – many of which were house calls she made in temperatures below zero. She would travel miles in the snow and wind with just her chestnut-colored horse, Pie, and buggy during minus 20-degree days.
Susan’s 20-hour workdays took their toll on her health. Dr. Sue, ironically, suffered from health issues for more than 20 years while treating others for their illnesses. She became frail at a young age and had difficulty breathing, experienced “a kind of numbness” throughout her body and worked through neck, back and head pains. In 1892, she was bed-ridden for nearly two months.
In 1893, she was bucked from her horse and suffered a catastrophic injury that kept her from speaking at the World’s Fair in Chicago that year.
The once plump-faced, strong young woman was becoming fragile and thin. Her eyes look pained in many photos taken in her later years.
“Stress, I’m sure, did her in,” said Hastings, the Omaha historian.
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For four years, work consumed her life. Then in 1893, her mother got sick.
Susan had to make a choice: her family or her career.
She chose her family and took time for herself and her mother. During that time Susan’s sister’s husband fell ill, as well. His brother Henry Picotte came to help with their farm. Susan was enamored with his dedication and good looks, and they were engaged by the spring of 1894.
The couple was married in June 1894 and moved to Bancroft, Neb.
Vida Stabler talks about the house she lives in, which originally belonged to Susan LaFlesche Picotte. She would like it to be revitalized to its original beauty as a tribute to the great native woman. Vida’s vision for the house is about bringing Susan’s beliefs and works to life.
Susan told her friends that she loved him very much even though they were “utterly unlike” each other. Henry Picotte was a Sioux Indian from Yankton, S.D. He was a “handsome man with polite, integrating manners, and a happy sense of humor,” Susan wrote. She and Henry had two sons named Caryl and Pierre.
However, Henry struggled with alcoholism, a social problem Susan would fight against most of her adult life. He later died from drinking while trying to stave off tuberculosis.
Henry’s death further fueled Susan’s desire to rid the reservation of alcohol. She helped pass legislation that banned it for many years. Her missionary work also fed her belief that alcohol was a curse that kept her people down.
In the later years of her life, Susan fought against the spread of tuberculosis by promoting fresh air, discouraging the sharing of common cups at the well and encouraging cleanliness in discarding trash and killing flies, known spreaders of tuberculosis.
Even after helping her people for nearly 25 years, she aimed higher. During her college years, she dreamed of creating a reservation hospital. Her dreams were realized as her hospital opened in 1913. She never had many opportunities to serve as a doctor at her hospital because of her health, but the effects were apparent on the reservation.
The hospital saved lives of those who might not have otherwise been treated.
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Susan died in the early hours of Sept. 18, 1915.
At age 50, the degenerative bone disease she suffered from for years finally took her life.
During her lifetime, she served more than 1,300 people in more than 450 square miles. Motivated by her faith and her father’s activism, she found common ground between whites and members of the Omaha Nation while never abandoning her tribal roots.
Many of the people she served came to her funeral in her small Walthill home. Newspaper reports said people were overflowing into the yard.
Three priests gave eulogies, and an Omaha tribe member said the closing prayer in the Omaha language – a final testament to her ability to bridge the gap between whites and Natives.
Her body rests with her husband in a cemetery just off the highway south of Bancroft.
The tombstone reads “Until the Day Dawns.”
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Today, Susan’s hospital in Walthill serves as a drug and abuse treatment center, a cause Farley thinks Susan would have approved of.
While Susan’s legacy burns bright in the minds of older residents on the reservation, the younger generations have yet to learn about her. It’s a story, Hastings thinks, that needs to be taught.
“Her story is a litany of frontier vignettes of which classic legends are made, and it needs no embellishment,” writes historian Hastings. “Dr. Susan could very well emerge as one of the more notable heroines in American History.”
It is time that the story of Susan Laflesche Picotte’s life and home be known, and Vida Stabler would like to thank the people responsible for writing the stories and building something to leave for the next generation.