6 Facts About Native American Trailblazer Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman to become a doctor in the United States, was born 150 years ago today. Here is a look at the incredible life of the pioneering woman who worked tirelessly for Native Americans.
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Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman to become a doctor in the United States, was born 150 years ago today. Here is a look at the incredible life of the pioneering woman who worked tirelessly for Native Americans.
Susan La Flesche Picotte Photo

Susan La Flesche Picotte (Photo: Nebraska State Historical Society)

Susan La Flesche Picotte grew up on an Indian reservation at a time when the Native American population was going through agonizing change. The U.S. Government was “subduing” the Indian population and relocating them on reservations, usually on land no one wanted. Living conditions were deplorable with disease and poverty. When Susan La Flesche Picotte was born 150 years ago today, no one knew that in her fifty short years she would graduate from medical school with honors, marry and raise children, care for her alcoholic husband, open a clinic on the reservation, testify before Congress for better health conditions on Native American reservations, and start her own hospital. 

Here are a few of the highlights of her incredible life:

1. Born on an Indian reservation, but set on a mission. 

Susan La Flesche Picotte was born on the Omaha Indian Reservation on June 17, 1865, the youngest of four children. It was a difficult time for Native Americans, losing their original land, being confined to reservation life, and trying to hold on to their ancient traditions. Her father was Chief Joseph La Flesche, of the Omaha Tribe. Her mother, Mary Gale, was the daughter of Dr. John Gale, the first army physician in Nebraska. Though Susan may not have known it at the time, the experience of witnessing the poor living conditions of the Omaha people and watching a sick tribal woman die because a white doctor refused to give her care, strongly influenced her to go into medicine. 

  2. Educated in a white world. 

Both Susan’s parents were of mixed race and wanted their children to survive in the white and native worlds. After being educated at the mission school on the reservation, Susan’s father had her attend schools back East to ensure she was exposed to white culture and education. Susan attended the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies and later the Hampton Institute in Virginia. The pull of home was a strong one, as her tribe was going through cultural upheaval, outbreaks of tuberculosis, alcoholism and malnutrition. But she decided to continue her schooling and doubled her resolve to help her people in any way she could. With the help of Alice Fletcher, whom Susan had cared for during an illness, and Dr. Martha M. Waldron, a physician at the Institute, Susan was able to secure funding from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs and become the first person to receive federal aid for professional education. She attended the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and graduated in 1889 at the top of her class.

Susan La Flesche Picotte Photo

Susan La Flesche Picotte with members of the Omaha Nation in 1910. (Photo: Nebraska State Historical Society)

3. Living in both the white and Native American worlds. 

Susan continued to experience life in both the white and Native American worlds, even while going to school in Pennsylvania. Occasionally she would visit Philadelphia and walk through the streets of downtown. The buildings were exceptionally tall and imposing. She was in awe of the lavish dresses in department stores. When she was fitted for a dress, she wrote to one of her sisters that it made her “become a lady of fashion.” In the same letter, she paradoxically told her sister she yearned for a pair of moccasins.

4. Becoming a medicine woman on the reservation. 

Susan La Flesche Picotte Photo

Susan La Flesche in the early 1900s when she returned to the Omaha Reservation. (Photo: Nebraska State Historical Society)

After her internship, Susan La Flesche became the first Native American woman physician in the country. She returned home to work at a government administered hospital caring for 1200 patients of both races. Some winters she would see over 100 patients a month traveling across the reservation and the county by horseback or buggy in sub-zero weather. Paid only $500 a year, she earned ten-times less than a U.S. Army or Navy doctor. When government funding ran out for supplies, she would use her own money. It was through this experience that she began to realize health care on the reservation needed to change drastically. She talked to her patients about the importance of keeping themselves and their environment clean and providing ventilation in their homes to reduce the risk of disease.   

5. Marriage and doing all. 

Susan La Flesche Picotte Photo

Susan La Flesche Picotte, her sister and their husbands, brothers Charles and Henry Picotte in the early 1900s. (Photo: Smithsonian Institute)

In 1894, Susan met and married Henry Picotte, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota. The couple moved to Bancroft, Nebraska, where Susan set up a private practice. Susan became the harbinger for 21st century professional women who strive to have it all. In addition to running a private practice, she also raised two children, became an advocate to acquire better health care for Native Americans, and took care of her alcoholic husband. Henry died in 1905 and Susan doubled her efforts to battle the poor health conditions of Native Americans. She joined the temperance movement and lobbied for prohibition on the reservation.

6. A crusader for Native American health and rights. 

After 1906, Susan La Flesche Picotte took her crusade national. She joined the temperance movement and helped form the Thurston County Medical Association, in Nebraska. She led a delegation to Washington, D.C. to lobby for prohibition of alcohol on reservations that led to the passage of legislation banning the sale and possession of alcohol on Native American lands. By raising private funds, she was able to open a hospital on the reservation in 1913, later named the Dr. Susan Picotte Memorial Hospital, which served natives and whites for over 30 years. Before her death in 1915, she took a very radical stand supporting a Native American religious movement that sought to legally introduce the hallucinogenic drug peyote into Native American spiritual traditions. This put her in opposition with many of her white medical colleagues. She also lobbied Congress for improving tribal people’s legal status and citizenship and fought to protect her people from land fraud and speculators. 

Susan La Flesche Picotte Hospital Photo

The Susan La Flesche Picotte Hospital was built in 1912 under its namesake's guidance to serve both Native Americans and white people. The Susan La Flesche Picotte Center was established in 1988 to remember Dr. Picotte as "a model student, servant, healer and leader." (Photo: Joelwnelson (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Legacy

Susan La Flesche Picotte is considered an early trailblazer in the women’s movement. Though not as well-known as a Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Picotte stood out as one who pushed for causes many considered unimportant. She was one of the first to not only encourage the practice of proper hygiene, but lobbied the government for better funding and management of the Native American population. She put rhetoric into practice by founding a medical association to set and enforce health standards on the reservation. She took her cause to Washington, D.C., advocating for better laws to help the Native American people and she started her own hospital to better serve the people she cared for so deeply.