“I shall always fight good and hard, even if I have to fight alone.”– Susan La Flesche Picotte
Susan La Flesche Picotte’s Story
Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in Nebraska on June 17, 1865, the youngest daughter in a notable family of Omaha and French descent. Her father, Joseph, was one of the seven Omaha chiefs who signed treaties ceding over 90% of the tribe’s land to the U.S. government in 1854. During this time of upheaval, Joseph La Flesche foresaw a future when the Omaha Tribe would have to live amongst white people and therefore wanted the tribe to undergo assimilation to survive. He promoted an Anglo-American style of living including log cabins, western dress, and Christian education.
After attending reservation schools run by white missionaries, Susan La Flesche left the Omaha Reservation in 1879 to study at a private boarding school in New Jersey. She then obtained a scholarship to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, a leading trade school for African Americans and American Indians, where she graduated second in her class in 1886. La Flesche then attended the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, one of the first medical schools for women. In 1889, she graduated top of her class, becoming the country’s first American Indian doctor.
Upon completing her education, La Flesche returned home to Nebraska and soon became the sole physician to both the Omaha and the nearby Winnebago, working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In this role, La Flesche served 1,244 patients scattered across a 1,350 square mile reservation. In 1894, La Flesche married Henry Picotte, a Yankton Sioux who worked with Wild West Shows, and the couple had two sons. After her marriage, Susan entered into private practice, treating both native people and white people, in the town of Bancroft, Nebraska, near the Omaha Reservation.
Despite her time-consuming medical practice and a chronic illness that left her deaf in one ear at age 40, La Flesche Picotte was tireless in her community work. She worked to guide the Omaha people in a variety of ways — translating legal documents for her fellow tribe members, testifying in Washington, D.C. about the theft of Omaha Indian lands, working as a missionary in her community, and teaching Sunday school. La Flesche Picotte also held a critical role as a public health advocate, working to educate people about the risks of communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza, and fighting for temperance among the Omaha. To that end, La Flesche Picotte lobbied for a ban on alcohol and worked to bar whiskey peddlers from the reservation. Despite her best efforts, however, she witnessed the trauma that alcoholism wrought on her community, including land theft, hunger, and domestic violence.
La Flesche Picotte’s crowning achievement came in 1913 when she opened the first privately-funded hospital on an American Indian reservation. Unfortunately, La Flesche Picotte did not get to run her hospital for long. She died of bone cancer on September 18, 1915, at the age of 50. The hospital, renamed Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital after her death, served patients for 30 years and is now a national historic landmark.
Featured in the Film
Joe Starita is a Nebraska author who has written extensively about Native American history and culture. His latest book, A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2016), is the definitive biography of Susan La Flesche. The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge – A Lakota Odyssey (University of Nebraska Press, 2002), recounts five generations of a Lakota Sioux family and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His second book, I Am A Man – Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), is being adapted into a feature film. A two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, Starita spent 15 years as an investigative reporter in New York and Miami before returning to Lincoln, where he teaches depth reporting at the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism.
Renée Sans Souci
With her degree in education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and as an Umonhon (Omaha) woman and practitioner of traditional spirituality, Renée Sans Souci combines her life experiences with a learning process that helps learners to engage in their own cultural identities and languages. Sans Souci has been a Teaching Artist of Poetry with the LIED Center for Performing Arts since 2009. She has presented at numerous conferences and workshops on various topics related to Native Science, History of Indian Education, Native languages, Poetry, and Sustainability. One of her most recent presentations was at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, on “Native American Women Activists: Resistance, Resilience, and Passing the Torch.”
Dr. Yvette Roubideaux
Yvette Roubideaux, MD, MPH, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and also Standing Rock Sioux, is the Vice President for Research and Director of the Policy Research Center at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). Her prior work includes research, education, health systems administration and policy development related to American Indian/Alaska Native health, and diabetes care. She served in the Obama Administration as a Senior Advisor to the HHS Secretary for American Indians and Alaska Natives, and was the first woman Director of the Indian Health Service (IHS). She is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Health Systems, Management, and Policy in the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado. Roubideaux received her undergraduate, medical, and public health degrees at Harvard University. She is also the author of several peer-reviewed research publications, and co-edited Promises to Keep: Public Health Policy for American Indians and Alaska Natives (American Public Health Association, 2001).
IN HISTORY - January 23, 1849
Elizabeth Blackwell became first woman doctor
March 16, 1854
Treaty between the Omaha and the U.S. government
June 17, 1865
Susan La Flesche was born
IN HISTORY - 1882
Omaha Allotment Act
La Flesche attended Hampton Institute
La Flesche returned to the Omaha Reservation to work as a physician
La Flesche married Henry Picotte
Henry Picotte died of tuberculosis
La Flesche opened a private hospital on the Omaha Reservation
IN HISTORY - January 16th, 1919
The 18th Amendment prohibited alcohol
IN HISTORY - 1993
La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital named a National Historic Landmark