Susan La Flesche Picotte was an Omaha Indian who became the first Native American physician and spent her life caring and campaigning for her people.
Susan was born on 17th June 1865 on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska. Both her parents were mixed race and her father, Iron Eyes (Joseph La Flesche), was the chief of their tribe. It was a time of much change and upheaval for Native Americans, and her father tried to manage this by encouraging people, including Susan and her three sisters, to adapt and become educated in the ways of the white world around them.
Susan was sent to the mission school on the reservation before leaving for the Elizabeth Insititute in New Jersey. She returned to the reservation when she was 17 and taught at the school before once again leaving, this time heading to the Hampton Insitute in Virgina. Here girls were taught how to be good Victorian ladies and housewives, while boys were taught vocational skills. This was part of an attempt by white society to ‘civilise’ Native Americans. When her studies were complete Susan was expected to return home to become a dutiful wife and mother, putting those ‘housewifery’ skills she’d been taught to use. Susan however, had other ideas.
Growing up on the reservation she had seen the poor conditions people lived in and the impact it had on their health. She also witnessed first hand that access to adequate medical care was scarce. She had been present when a sick, elderly woman died after the doctor she had called refused to visit her:
“It was only an Indian and it did not matter. The doctor preferred hunting for prairie chickens rather than visiting poor, suffering humanity.”
Susan was inspired to do something to help, so she decided that, if she could, she would train to become the physician that the reservation so desperately needed. This wasn’t without it’s obstacles, very few medical schools accepted women at the time, and those that did charged huge fees – which Susan couldn’t afford. However, in 1887 she was accepted at the Women’s Medical College of Pennysylvania. Supported by anthropologist Alice Fletcher, she was able to secure funding from the Women’s National Indian Association which covered all her fees, room and board.
Susan worked hard and completed her medical studies in 2 years (1 year less than the expected 3), graduating top of her class in 1889 and becoming the first qualified Native American physician. She completed an internship for a year before returning home to the reservation where she became the doctor at the government boarding school.
She quickly built up trust within the community. Before long as well as treating their ailments, she was also helping people with other practical matters, such as writing letters and translating documents. She wasn’t paid a lot, much less than other government physicians at the time. Despite this, when supplies ran out, she used her own money to buy more so she was able to continue treating her patients.
She worked around the clock and made herself available whenever she was needed. She often made home visits across the vast reservation, riding on her horse, Pie, to reach people in need, even in sub-zero temperatures in the depths of winter. All this was despite of her own health issues, which she battled against throughout her life. In 1892 she was forced to take 2 months of rest, having burnt out from working so hard.
In 1894 she married a Sioux Indian called Henry Picotte and later had two sons with him. They moved to Bancroft, Nebraska and Susan set up her own private practice. It was very unusual at the time for a married woman and mother to continue to work, but Susan defied the expected norms because of her desire to continue to serve her people.
Susan sought to raise awareness on the reservation about health issues such as good hygiene and food sanitation. One of the causes she cared most passionately about was preventing the spread of tuberculosis, which had hugely affected the Omaha population, and eventually killed her husband. She educated people about good ventilation and getting rid of flies, simple changes which made a huge difference in the mortality rates of her people.
Another issue Susan campaigned fervently to raise awareness of was alcohol abuse. Her husband Henry was an alcoholic, giving her first hand experience of the damage alcohol could cause. In addition to this she saw the harm which alcohol use was causing to the community and how some unscrupulous whites would use alcohol to take advantage of Native Americans when making land deals. She campaigned for prohibition on the reservation and supported the temperance movement.
When her husband died in 1905 Susan had a real battle to claim the 185 acres of land which he had left to her and their sons. It took two years for the land to be released to her, and even longer for the land left to her sons to be handed over. This struggle inspired Susan to helo other Omaha who were engaged in similar struggles over land, helping them when they wanted to sell land, and ensuring that they received the monies owed to them. She became a defender of their rights as well as their health.
For many years Susan had a dream of opening a hospital on the reservation. Finally in 1913 her dream was fulfilled and the hospital opened, named after her. Sadly by then Susan’s heath was failing and she was unable to work at the hospital as she had hoped, but she was able to witness the impact which it had on her community.
Susan died at just 50 years of age, having spent most of her life tirelessly serving the Omaha people.
Find out more…
The Nebraska Studies website has more information and some great photos & documents about Susan. There is also a teacher pack free to download.
This short video talks about Susan’s life: