Susan La Flesche: Indian Doctress


In 1865, a shining dark-eyed Indian princess was born to Iron Eye, the last chief of the Omaha tribe. That child, Susan La Flesche, would later become more than a princess—she would be the first female Native American doctor and a tireless Christian in the service of the Omaha people.
At home both on the expansive Nebraska prairies or a civilized Eastern classroom, Susan felt an early call to carry on her chieftain-father’s work, to help her people transition to the Christian culture she had come to embrace and to meet their physical needs.
Susan’s father, Joseph La Flesche—Iron Eye—was himself of mixed Indian parentage. Born to a French father and an Indian mother, La Flesche understood that the Indian culture must soon give way to the westward tide of the white world. As chief, he and his wife enthusiastically embraced the Christianity offered them by Presbyterian missionaries, and he sought to help his people make the transition to new ways of living. He accepted the “great white father’s” plans to make Indians into somewhat yeomen farmers on reservations, and he took up the previously unfamiliar tasks of farming and ranching. He built frame houses for his family and others to live in, though many of the older Omahas were uncomfortable with the thought of leaving their tipis. When some of the tribe who had stubbornly resisted western farming in favor of the hunting-gathering life-style began to starve, La Flesche took his own crops to the hungry families, sometimes leaving little food to stretch around his own table. Susan, just a child at the time, remembers her father instructing a young Indian man, “He who is present at a wrongdoing and lifts not his hand to prevent it is as guilty as the wrongdoers … When you see a barefoot boy and lame, take off your moccasins and give them to him. When you see a boy hungry, bring him to your house and give him food.”1
These words impressed Susan, and her father’s ex-ample guided her later in life. La Flesche welcomed missions and missionaries onto his land, set up his own police task force to stem the tide of alcohol use among his people (his wife diligently sewed fabric stars onto green uniforms), and his time as chief saw the mission overflowing with Indians hearing the gospel and learning “white” customs.
La Flesche valued education and, with other reformers of the time, he saw it as one of the chief means of helping his own children transition into the white world. The chief refused to let his daughters receive on their foreheads the traditional tattoo signifying their rank: he wanted nothing to stand in their way as they grew up in the white world. La Flesche arranged for his four gifted daughters—Susette, Margarite, Rosalie, and the youngest, Susan, to attend missionary schools in nearby villages where they learned to speak, read, and write English, sing hymns, and master the skills necessary in their new culture. Seeing that Susan had great promise, he sent her East to white boarding schools where she excelled in her classes. Her work ethic mirrored her father’s—tireless—and the compassion she learned as she followed at his heels caused those around her to take note. Susan began to feel that she was called to help her people in a special way, that her education was something to be used for the good of the Omaha people. When as a teenager she spent a summer cheerfully caring for a white, female ethnologist who fell very ill with rheumatism while working on the reservation, Susan had little idea that her desire to help her people was about to become more concrete. The ethnologist she had nursed was Alice Fletcher, a woman who worked closely with the Women’s Nation Indian Association (WNIA), an auxiliary missionary organization focused on bringing Christian culture to Indian women and their homes. Fletcher saw Susan’s potential and arranged for scholarships so that the young Omaha woman could do something very few white women were doing: attend medical school.
Susan finished at the top her class at Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. Her time in Philadelphia—and earlier in Virginia at Hampton College—gave Susan the poise and confidence to move fluidly be-tween two worlds, white and Indian. She did not look upon her position as an Indian woman in white society with shame or animosity; her good humor and cheerful spirit became her hallmark. In a letter to her sister just before a surgical exam, Susan jokes, “I am going to wield the knife tonight … not the scalping knife though!”2
Following her graduation, the 24 year-old doctor returned to Nebraska to practice medicine. Susan had begun her work at the Indian children’s school, ministering to children. Seeing that many of the older Omahas refused to seek help from the reservation’s white doctor, and that sometimes the doctor seemed uninterested in truly helping his patients, Susan appealed to the Office of Indian Affairs and soon found herself responsible for the health and well-being of the 1244 Omahas on the reservation. For four years, Susan labored alone in this task. She packed her medical supplies in her saddlebags and traversed the 35 by 45 mile reservation ministering to the sick. The work was arduous. Rough traveling over uneven dirt roads often broke her glass vials of medicine en route, thirty-below temperatures accompanied her in winter, and severe earaches and back pain became the young doctor’s frequent companion. Her father had died before she graduated, and with his death, those who wanted to make a quick buck selling alcohol poured onto the reservation so quickly that Susan saw many Omaha men and boys waste away to skeletons in just a few short years, and their families face greater deprivations.
In her spare time Susan was indefatigable, treating some 600 patients in the space of three winter months. Susan taught Sunday School, translated hymns and sermons at the Presbyterian mission, and tried to bring Christian culture to her people. She was sometimes less than successful. Once, she talked a young Indian couple into following a traditional Christian wedding service. The bride and groom stood in uncertain, uncomfortable silence in their wedding clothes as the minister finished the ceremony. They did not know what came next. Eventually, the minister had to tell them, “You may go” and the young couple, bewildered, walked back down the aisle. It took many years before another couple attempted a “white” wedding, preferring instead to present the bride’s father with blankets and gifts as a token of the marriage.
After the four exhausting years of tending the Omaha people, Susan resigned from her work and shortly married Henry Picotte, another half-blood Indian. Her frail health improved and she had two sons, Caryl and Pierre. Susan and her husband now lived in a different town, more westernized than the makeshift “white world” her father had built, and Susan felt again the call to practice medicine. She became once more a powerhouse of energy in the service of others. Susan was no longer just a physician, she became the legal counsel, real estate agent, accountant, spokesman, Sunday School teacher, church planter, and advisor to her people. She lobbied for continued prohibition of alcohol on the reservation, a task even more dear to her heart because she lost her beloved husband through complications arising from alcoholism. She wrote pamphlets and taught on the importance of sanitary eating conditions, the prevention of tuberculosis, and the cleanliness of public facilities, such as school. Susan also found herself as an advocate for the Omaha people in Washington D.C. Susan petitioned the federal government to honor the land-trust agreements made some twenty years earlier with the Omaha, and to release them to the land and monies promised by the government, noting that if she had to, “she would fight alone, for before my God I owe my people a responsibility.”3
Her greatest dream, however, was to see a hospital built in her community. The nearest hospital was over fifty miles away, and many Omahas would not or could not travel that far. Susan longed to see a place specifically suited to the medical needs of both the Indian and white population she served. She envisioned a home-like hospital, with plenty of windows for light-filled rooms and a large porch where patients could convalesce in the clean, prairie air. In 1905, Susan’s missionary zeal and godly example caught the eye of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, and they appointed her as a medical missionary to the Omaha tribe. In conjunction with the Blackbird Hill’s Presbyterian Church, Susan founded the Walthill Presbyterian Church in Nebraska, where she taught children, translated the sermons and hymns for the Omahas, cared for the sick, and continued educating her people about cleanliness. And in 1913, after years of raising money through the mission work, benefit concerts, and private donors, Susan’s hospital was built in Walthill, complete with a generous porch and many windows.
Susan only lived two more years once her hospital was built. At age 50 she died from what was likely bone cancer in her face, perhaps signaled all those years ago by her earaches. She died surrounded by the family and friends she spent 25 years ministering to, and at her request the gospel was preached at her funeral and the final prayer offered in the Omaha language. Susan’s last words just before she passed to glory, however, exemplify the course of her life, “I cannot see how any credit is due me. I am thankful I’ve been called and permitted to serve. I feel blessed for that privilege above all measure.”4

1 Jeri Ferris, Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan La Flesche Picotte (Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1991), 18.
2 Valerie Sherer Mathis, “Iron Eye’s Daughters: Susette and Susan La Flesche, Nineteenth-Century Indian Reformers” in By Grit and Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West, eds. Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etaulin, (Fulcrum, 1997), 145.
3 Ferris, 75.
4 Ferris, 79.