American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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LaFlesche, Susan Picotte

Daughter of Omaha principal Chief Joseph LaFlesche, Susan LaFlesche (Omaha, 1865–1915) became a government doctor on the Omaha Reservation during a time when cholera, influenza, tuberculosis, and other diseases were reaching epidemic proportions. She blazed a career of genius through a number of white schools, and then nearly worked herself to death serving the Omahas as a government physician.

In 1884, after two and a half years at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey, LaFlesche enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. This vocational school had been started by General Samuel C. Armstrong to educate freed slaves. A number of Indians also attended, and the school played a role in the designs of Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, who started Carlisle Indian School. LaFlesche graduated from Hampton May 20, 1886 at the top of her class. Between 1886 and 1889, she attended the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania on a scholarship raised by her friends, many of whom were non-Indian, again graduating at the top of her class.

LaFlesche thus became one of a handful of Native American physicians in the nineteenth century, a group that includes Charles Eastman and Carlos Montezuma. She was the only Native American woman to become a medical doctor during that century. For five years, LaFlesche fought pervasive disease on the Omaha reservation, making some progress.

In December 1891, LaFlesche wrote that influenza "raged with more violence than during the two preceding years. Some families were rendered helpless by it . . .. Almost every day I was out making visits. . . . Several days the temperature was 15 to 20 degrees below zero, and I had to drive [a horse-drawn buggy] myself" (Mathes, 1985, 73). During that winter, she treated more than 600 patients.

By 1892, the intensity of her work was costing LaFlesche her health. She was beset by a number of debilitating illnesses for the rest of her life, as she ministered to the ever-present ills of the Omahas. At one point she wearily departed for Washington, D.C., to testify for the Omahas because people had threatened to convey her bodily, her mission was of such importance to them.

Back on the Omaha reservation, LaFlesche waged a tireless campaign against alcoholism, recounting stories of how Indians craving liquor used their rent money and even pawned their clothes in winter to obtain it. She wrote of one Harry Edwards, who on a winter's night in 1894, "fell from a buggy, was not missed by his drunken companions, and in the morning was found frozen to death" (Mathes, 1985, 75). From a medical point of view, LaFlesche believed that alcoholism was at the root of many of the physical, mental, and moral ills facing the Omahas and other American Indians.

In 1894, her health improving, LaFlesche married Henri Picotte, who was part French and part Sioux; she also began a new medical practice for Indians and whites at Bancroft, Nebraska. LaFlesche practiced medicine there for the rest of her life, as her own health permitted. After LaFlesche's death on September 18, 1915, the Walthill Times added an extra page (in its September 24 issue) and filled it with warm eulogies to her. Friends recalled that hundreds of people in the area, Indian and Euro-American, owed their lives to her care.

The hospital that Susan LaFlesche built at Walthill has since been declared a national historic landmark. Since 1988, her memory has been celebrated at an annual festival there.

Bruce E. Johansen

Further Reading
Ferris, Jeri. 1991. Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan Laflesche Picotte. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books; Mathes, Valerie Sherer. 1985. "Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte: The Reformed and the Reformer." In Indian Lives: Essays on Nineteenth-and Twentieth-century Native American Leaders Edited by L.G. Moses and Raymond Wilson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 61–89.; Tong, Benson. 1999. Susan La Flesche Picotte, M.D.: Omaha Indian Leader and Reformer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Wilkerson, J. L. 1999. A Doctor to Her People: Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte. Kansas City, MO: Acorn Books.

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