Excerpted with permission from A Warrior of the People by Joseph Starita. Published in November 2016 by St. Martin’s Press.
On March 14, 1889, Susan La Flesche received her medical degree―becoming the first Native American doctor in U.S. history. She earned her degree 31 years before women could vote and 35 years before Indians could become citizens in their own country. By age 26, this fragile but indomitable Indian woman became the doctor to her patriarchal tribe. She spent her life crashing through walls of ethnic, racial and gender prejudice to improve the lot of her people.
It’s five A.M. on a midwinter morning, the mercury stuck at twenty below. Overhead, a canopy of constellations spills across the clean winter sky, the quarter moon a slim lantern hanging above the vast, black, desolate prairie.
She’s walking to the barn, through the snow, layered in muffs, mittens, and scarves. Still, her ears are numb, her face frozen, her breathing labored.
She steps inside the barn, carefully placing a small black bag on the buggy seat. For a time, if it were less than a mile, she would just walk. Then she took to slinging the black leather bag across her saddle, making house calls on horseback. But bouncing across the rugged terrain took its toll on the glass bottles and instruments, so she eventually bought a buggy, bought her own team.
Inside, her two favorite horses wait impatiently, snorting thick clouds of steam into the ice-locker air. She grabs their harness, hitches them to the buggy, and guides them out of the barn. Then she climbs in and gets her chocolate mares, Pat and Pudge, heading in the right direction, their ghostly white vapor trails hanging in the frigid blackness.
It’s early January 1892, a month her people call When the Snow Drifts into the Tents. The woman in the buggy, the one lashing her team to move faster, is a small, frail twenty-six-year-old, a devout Christian who also knows her people’s traditional songs, dances, customs, and language, a woman who just recently acquired 1,244 patients scattered across 1,350 square miles of open prairie now blanketed in two feet of snow—a homeland of sloping hills, rolling ranch land, gullies, ravines, wooded creek banks, floodplains, and few roads.
The air crushes her face, stings her ears. She pulls a thick buffalo robe over her shoulders to buffer the subzero winds, lashing the horses’ flanks again and again until the buggy picks up the pace, its wheels moving over one ridge and then another, through deep drifts covering the remote hillsides of northeast Nebraska.
In the darkness they keep moving, keep going, and all the while, over and over, her mind keeps drifting to the same recurring thought:
Can I find her?
Will I get there in time?
They were known as the Omaha–Umon’hon. In the language of her people, it meant “against the current” or “upstream,” and their Sacred Legend, their creation story, said the Omaha had emerged long ago from a region far to the east, a region of dense woods and great bodies of wate
This was her land, their land, the land of her people, and now she was riding across it in the dark and bitter cold in the month When the Snow Drifts into the Tents. Below the snow lay the prairie, an endless carpet of grass that had nurtured herds of buffalo once estimated at more than forty million. Her people believed the buffalo had been a gift from Wakonda, and the great beasts had helped sustain their way of life for several centuries. But now, as the nineteenth century wound down, the endless wild herds—slaughtered at first for traders, then by railroad mercenaries and sportsmen, and finally as an instrument of government policy—had been reduced to fewer than a thousand, reduced to near extinction.
But her people were still there, still living on their prairie homeland, where many had eventually come to learn a harsh lesson of life on the American Great Plains: Adapt—or perish.
Joseph Starita’s new biography, A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor was published on November 1st. Susan La Flesche is also the subject of a new documentary entitled “Medicine Woman” for which Starita has served as an expert contributor—it will air on PBS this November.