by Tanya Hanson
With the heroine in my current anthology release, Her Hurry-Up Husband hailing from Omaha, I came across a fascinating real-life woman while researching the city. Dr. Susan Le Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) of the Omaha tribe was the first Native American Indian woman to receive a medical degree.
She was also the first American to receive federal aid for professional education.
Susan was born on June 17, 1865 on the Omaha reservation in northeast Nebraska. Her parents were Chief Joseph “Iron Eyes” Le Flesche, son of a French fur trader, and his wife Mary “One Woman,” the mixed-blood daughter of an Army physician. Although Iron Eyes raised his four daughters Christian, in a frame house on the reservation, he never abandoned native traditions. In fact, his strongest wish and recommendation for Susan was that she become educated in both the white and native cultures. A relative later described her as having one foot in both worlds.
As a child, Susan witnessed a white doctor refusing to care for a dying Indian woman. After attending school on the reservation and Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey, she returned to the reservation to teach at the Quaker Mission School. Here Alice Fletcher, the renowned ethnologist, encouraged Susan to pursue medicine. She enrolled at the elite Hampton Institute in Virginia, the nation’s first school for non-whites.
At Hampton, the resident physician urged Susan to enroll at Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Miss Fletcher helped Susan obtain scholarship funds from the U.S Office of Indian Affairs. Susan graduated at the top of her class in 1889, and after an internship in Philadelphia, she returned to the reservation to provide health care.
Never in vigorous health, due to a degenerative bone condition, Susan nevertheless managed a career that served 1,300 patients and covered 450 square miles. Not merely a healthcare giver, she often gave financial advice and family counseling. She instructed the Omaha peoples on the necessities of cleanliness, good hygiene, and ventilation. In a buggy drawn by her chestnut horse Pie, she made house calls at all hours, even in sub-zero weather. She earned about $500 a year, one-tenth of the salaries of military physicians. Bucked from a horse in 1893, she was too injured to fulfill the invitation to speak at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Despite early vows to remain single, at age 29 “Dr. Sue” married Henry Picotte, a Sioux from Yankton, South Dakota, in 1894, and raised their two sons Pierre and Caryl in Bancroft Nebraska. Her practice here treated both white and non-white patients.
Henry Picotte battled alcoholism much of his life, inspiring Susan’s ambition to outlaw alcohol on the reservation. She led a delegation to Washington D.C. in 1906 to lobby for such prohibition. Her lifelong dream to open a reservation hospital came true in 1913 in Waithill, Nebraska. The hospital is now a museum dedicated to her work and the history of the Omaha-Winnebago tribes.
When the bone disease ended Dr. Sue’s life at age 50, September 18, 1915, three priests eulogized her as well as an Omaha tribesman reciting in the native language. This showed her successful assimilation into both her worlds
Her tombstone is inscribed “Until The Day Dawns.”
Another incredible American I never learned about in history classes!
Excerpt from Her Hurry-up Husband...Rancher Hezekiah is waiting at the train station for his mail order bride, needing a wife for life. Little does he know Omaha debutante Elspeth wants a husband for only one month.
For a quick second, Hezekiah considered jumping on the train and riding it to Utah. The iron bench he sat on was harder than any boulder, colder than a long night in a line shack. What had he done?
His heart thumped so hard it hurt and all but broke a rib when the woman departing the train came into eyeshot.
A woman wrapped in a black cloak like a bat closing its wings. A woman with hair so white she could have been the snow queen in a fairy tale. And so old she could have mothered Methuselah.
Good Lord, had the telegraph operator in Omaha meant 91, not 21?
The conductor gently loaded her onto the platform, and Hez prayed for death.
“Great granny? Great granny?”
A herd of Hunsakers ran from behind their worn-out wagon, all nine of ’em grabbing the old lady close. Life returned to Hez’s bloodstream.
But his heart stopped again when he heard the conductor call out his name.
“Hezekiah Steller? This lady’s looking for you.”
It was happening for real. Hez, heart stopped, plodded forward like he was that old woman’s man. Until the conductor pulled another female outside and unwrapped the long linen duster passengers wore to keep away the coal dust.
Beneath the grimy coat stepped his bride. Like an angel bursting forth from a bank of clouds. Like a dream coming true. Her beauty astonished him; her tiny waist brought on sweet relief. And Hez realized his life would never be the same. Realized he just might never breath normal again.
“How do, ma’am.” He tried to speak but no sound came forth.