The Omaha Indian Reservation in 1865 was a place caught between two worlds: the modern, White world, and the traditional world its residents had lived in for hundreds of years. In a log cabin on the Northwest side of the reservation, a place more conservative Omahas called “Village of the Make-Believe White Men”, an 8-year-old girl named Susan was tasked with watching over a sickly elderly neighbor while messengers went to find the white agency doctor. The woman was in agonizing pain, but the doctor ignored all four messages pleading for his help, and young Susan watched the woman eventually succumb to her illness. It was then that Susan realized that for her people, something was going to have to change.
Susan La Flesche Picotte was born on June 17th, 1865, on the Omaha Indian Reservation. She was the youngest of four daughters born to Chief Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eyes) and Mary Gale (One Woman). Both of her parents were mixed Omaha and white, and so Suan grew up caught between two worlds. As a young child she was educated in a mission school on the reservation. She later received education at the Hampton Institute, one of the first universities for people of color. During her time at the Hampton Institute, Susan was advised by a mentor to attend medical school. With this mentor’s help, Susan secured a scholarship from the U.S Office of Indian Affairs, making her the first person to attend college on a federal grant. Susan graduated from the Pennsylvania Woman’s Medical College at the top of her class, becoming the first Native American Female physician in the country.
Susan returned to the reservation she was born on, medical degree in hand. On the reservation, she was responsible for some 1,200 people and was on call 24 hours a day. As one of the few female doctors and the only Native American one in the country, Susan faced discrimination and hostility from some of her patients. Nevertheless, she threw everything she had into their care. Susan was paid ten times less than an Army or Navy doctor with the same amount of patients, yet she was still forced to pay for her own supplies when the Indian Affairs Office ran out, which was often. She was sole doctor within a 1,350 mile radius, and was often forced to walk several miles to reach her patients. Beyond her capacity as a physician, Susan often found herself acting as a parent, lawyer, advocate, and teacher.
Through all of this, Susan’s dream remained opening a hospital on the Omaha reservation. While she worked on that, she also advocated tirelessly for hygiene and disease prevention standards to be raised on the reservation, and for the rights of Native Americans to be recognized as legal citizens. In 1894, she married a Sioux man named Henry Picotte, and the two moved to Bancroft, Nebraska. Susan opened a private practice there, treating both white and native patients, while also raising two children. Her husband Henry suffered from severe alcoholism, and Susan was often forced to care for him alongside her patients until his death in 1905 from tuberculosis. This experience sparked a lifelong passion in Susan for the American Temperance Movement. She was considered controversial for her condemnation of the scourge of alcohol available on reservations across the country.
As a Native American woman, Susan knew well what it was like to have her knowledge and experience discounted right off the bat. Even as a child, her goal was to help her people. “It has always been a desire of mine to study medicine ever since I was a small girl,” she wrote years later, “for even then I saw the need of my people for a good physician.” In 1913, Susan finally achieved her lifelong dream of opening a modern hospital on the Omaha Reservation. She would end up passing away just two years later from what was believed to be bone cancer. Her tireless work on behalf of the Omaha people led to a legacy of activism. She was at the forefront of many causes of Native Americans and is considered a trailblazer of the women’s movement in the United States. The hospital she worked to open remained open until the late 1940’s, at which point it became a museum dedicated to Susan La Flesche Picotte and to the history of the Omaha people.