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.
Born about 1818 in northeast Nebraska, the son of a French fur trader and an Indian mother, Joseph La Flesche grew up among a new subgroup of mixed-blood children—children who emerged from the bustling trading post culture clustered along the region’s rivers, especially the Missouri.
So La Flesche forbade his sons to have their ears pierced and his daughters to participate in the traditional Mark of Honor Ceremony. Among the Omaha, it was customary for fathers who had achieved a certain status for hunting prowess or peacemaking skills to place the mark of honor on their daughters. The mark reflected the father’s accomplishments and signified that the girl was the daughter of a chief or of someone of high social standing within the tribe. The mark often consisted of a sunspot image tattooed on the forehead and a four-pointed star on the throat, the points representing the life-giving winds from each of the four directions. Often, the Mark of Honor Ceremony occurred around noon, when the sun was at its highest point in the sky. But La Flesche wanted no such markings, no tattoos of any kind, for his children.
Yet he was equally insistent that all of his children know all of the Omaha’s traditional ceremonies, songs, beliefs, values, and customs—and that they all spoke the Omaha language, the cultural glue that kept their Indian identity intact.
Decade after decade, La Flesche struggled to keep threading an elusive bicultural needle, one that he believed would ensure the success of his children, the survival of his people. And year in and year out, he continually stressed to his children that there was one key value they must all adopt from the white man: education.
Education, he preached, was the key. It could help save their people. It’s what could unlock the American Dream.
Education is what we can do to help ourselves—to better ourselves.
Over time, Joseph La Flesche’s eldest daughter would become one of America’s earliest, most prominent Indian civil rights leaders. His son, the nation’s first Indian ethnographer. Another daughter became a teacher. And there was his youngest daughter, Susan. As a small child, she had witnessed the death of one of her people and the indifference of the white doctor to her death. It was something she would never forget.
Alone in her buggy, alone on the empty, frozen prairie, alone in her dorm room in Virginia or her rented room in Philadelphia, she often felt out on a limb, isolated. There was no one she could turn to, no one to confide in, no cultural signposts to follow. No one else like her to consult with, to help her on her journey. So she kept going, as she always did, kept moving through the early-morning light, through the snow, looking for a sign of life on the endless sweep of prairie.
Among the tribes of the Great Plains, and throughout much of America, it was not unusual for Indian women to become part of the tribal medical community, to be important healers. The women of the Upstream People knew many of the wild plants and herbs, and so they would take their daughters out on the prairie, along creek banks, or in mountain valleys, teaching them about the various roots, herbs, leaves, and flowers and how they could be used. For winter colds and flu, brewing the leaves of wild sage into a tea. A burning rope of braided sweetgrass for asthma. Boiled yucca plant roots for shampoo. Sweet flag rots for upset stomachs. Cattail roots for dressing burns. The root of the wild rose for rinsing inflamed eyes. The medicine bag of the traditional medicine woman often had cures for a variety of ailments—native cures for poison ivy, constipation, fevers, chills, toothaches, and snakebite.
But the traditional way was not the one her father had chosen for his youngest daughter. He had sent her off in another direction, sent her off on a much different path, an often lonely path with no footprints.
In 1847, Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman in American history to get accepted to a medical college. It hadn’t come easily. Rejected by every institution she applied to, Blackwell eventually gained entry to a small school in rural New York—but for all the wrong reasons. The Geneva College medical faculty assumed it would never happen, so they put her admission up for a vote by the male students. The male students thought it was a faculty prank, so they voted to admit her as a practical joke.
Susan La Flesche Picotte
In the language of her grandfather, the French fur trader La Flesche, her name means “the arrow.” And between her birth in the waning weeks of the Civil War and her final resting place, the trajectory of her life would encompass a span of experiences and a range of avocations unlike those of any other Indian woman before or since.
As a child born at a time when her people still lived in tipis and earth lodges, alternating between buffalo hunters and corn growers, she could never have known that one day she would deliver babies, suture wounds, cure fevers and colds, treat tuberculosis and influenza, ban communal drinking cups, insist on screen doors, and build a hospital in a remote, isolated corner of the Great Plains.
Back then, in the years after the transcontinental railroad and before the Little Bighorn, she could never have known that she would start a library for her people, translate legal documents, cook and deliver meals to the hungry and destitute, preside at funerals, deliver sermons, sing in the choir, and embrace the Native American Church.
That the day would come when she would attend plays, visit world-class museums, enjoy piano concertos, sit in on poetry readings, dance in summer powwows, sing traditional songs, and convey her people’s creation stories and rituals to the next generation.
That she would often go upstream, against the current, taking a train to Washington, D.C., to crusade against the injustice of federal policies that threatened to steal the land from her people, land they legally owned. About the many trips to the state legislature that she would one day make, the impassioned speeches railing against the whiskey peddlers preying on the Omaha, sowing disease and violence and domestic abuse everywhere they went.
About what she would accomplish on March 14, 1889—the day she graduated as valedictorian of her medical school class in Philadelphia, becoming the first American Indian doctor in the 113-year history of her country, thirty-one years before women could vote, thirty-five years before all Indians could become citizens in their own country.
As a young girl growing up on the rich soil of the Missouri River floodplain, Susan La Flesche could never have known that she would come to love her people so much that she would give her life for them. Would come to love her homeland so much that she could never leave it.
And now—resting peacefully near the perfect pines, on a slight rise above the lush, verdant fields, not far from the song of the meadowlark—she never will.
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.