June 17, 1865 to
September 15, 1915
Susan La Flesche Picotte
First Female American Native
Picotte was born
on the Omaha Reservation, which closely approximated the later Thurston county
in northeastern Nebraska. The fourth daughter and fifth and youngest child of
Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eye) and his wife Mary (One Woman), she was born
into a remarkable Indian family. Her father was a vigorous leader striving to
make the Omahas a sober and progressive people, and his children carried forward
his ideals. Growing up in the Indian culture, Susan did not learn English until
she went to the mission and government schools on the reservation. Her real education
began at 14 when, following in the steps of her older sister Susette, she entered
the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies (New Jersey). After three years there
she spent two years at Hampton Institute in Virginia, graduating in May1886 as
salutatorian and receiving a gold medal for high scholastic achievement.
The Women's National Indian Association, founded in 1880 by Mary Lucinda Bonney
and Amelia Stone Quinton, had begun a program of financing professional training
for talented Indians. With its aid, Susan La Flesche now entered the Woman's Medical
College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Completing the three-year course in two
years, she graduated with the M.D. degree in 1889 at the head of a class of thirty-six.
She was not quite twenty-four. After a year as an intern in the Woman's Hospital
in Philadelphia, she went back to her tribe as physician at the government school
for Omaha children. For a time she served also as a medical missionary for the
Women's National Indian Association. Later her government services were extended
to the rest of the tribe. This was an arduous task, for the 1,300 Omahas were
widely scattered and the principal means of transportation was by horseback. The
slender young doctor was often nurse as well as physician, and always teacher
of new rules for health and sanitation. Even in bitter storms she never considered
the way impassable; but the work was too heavy, and after four years she resigned.
In 1894 she was married to Henry Picotte, half Sioux and half French in ancestry,
and settled in Bancroft, Nebraska. There she carried on a growing medical practice
among both Indians and whites, meanwhile bringing up two children and nursing
her husband during a long illness that ended in his death in 1905. Her two sons,
Caryl and Pierre, attended college; Caryl, who served in the Army in both world
wars, was in the "death march" from Bataan and became a new lieutenant colonel.
Soon after the town of Walthill was founded (1906) on the Omaha reservation, Dr.
Susan Picotte, following her father's principles, led a delegation to Washington
and obtained the stipulation that every deed for property in towns established
on the Omaha and Winnebago reservations should forever prohibit the sale of liquor.
One of the earliest residents of Walthill, she was a leading spirit in the community,
active in church affairs and the women's club, one of the organizers of the County
Medical Society, and chairman of the local board of health. She became in effect
the real leader of the Omahas, although traditionally they never followed a woman.
Having meanwhile becom a medical missionary of the Presbyterian Board of Home
Missions, under its auspices she established, in 1913, a hospital at Walthill;
after her death it was given her name. It was estimated that in twenty-five years
she had treated every member of the Omaha tribe and saved the lives of many.
Modest and unselfish, she had humor and a broad tolerance for human frailty. Although
for years she suffered extreme pain from an infection of the facial bones, which
finally proved fatal, she never lessened her activities. She died in Walthill
in 1915 and was buried at Bancroft. Born in one culture, she became part of a
far different one, but never lost touch with those who lived according to tribal
values; fittingly, Presbyterian clergymen officiated at her funeral, but the closing
prayer was made by an aged Indian in the Omaha language.
Article written by Norma Kidd Green
©1971 Radcliffe College
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