Who Was the First Native American Woman Doctor?

Susan La Flesche broke barriers before women could vote or Native Peoples gained citizenship

by Joseph Starita

On March 14, 1889, having overcome enormous racial and gender barriers, Susan La Flesche became the nation's first Indian doctor -- 31 years before women could vote and 35 years before Native Americans were granted citizenship in their own country. Here is her story.

It's 5 a.m. on a midwinter morning, the mercury stuck at 20 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 steps inside the barn, carefully placing a small black bag on the buggy seat. Her two favorite horses wait impatiently, snorting thick clouds of steam into the ice-locker air. 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 Omaha Indian woman in the buggy is a small, frail 26-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 2 feet of snow.

The air crushes her face, stings her ears. Susan La Flesche 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 thoughts:

Can I find her?

Will I get there in time?

She has to find the one-room cabin somewhere on this frozen winter prairie. Though years apart, she and the young girl inside had gone to the same school -- the same normal and agricultural college in Virginia, where after the great war they had sent the sons and daughters of black people and the sons and daughters of red people to learn how to become more like white people.

It's a little lighter now and she thinks she's gone close to five miles, but she still cannot see the one-room home. It's still cold and it makes her feel even more alone, more fragile, more vulnerable. She's scared. There's too much time to think. She feels the prairie closing in, the urge to panic closing in. She wonders if it's her fate to die alone on this prairie, to die an old maid with no husband or children, with no family to comfort her in her final hours.

A white plume curling up into the sky.

That's the one-room house with the sick girl. Now the husband greeted her at the door and led her inside. She saw there were 3 generations of the family living in the one room.

And in a far corner of the room, she saw a young girl lying on the floor, her weak and elderly mother trying to prop her up so she could breathe. She'd had tuberculosis for more than a year and now she had the flu and her breathing was soft and shallow, hard to hear except periodically, when she desperately struggled to take a deeper breath and her mother struggled to pull her up a little bit higher.

"She looked up at me, but couldn't speak," Susan would later recall.

It had been a bad winter for many. In the month before, December, she had treated more than 140 patients, the result of a flu epidemic that had swept across the remote reservation. Sometimes it had crippled entire families, families scattered many miles apart, and she had been out making calls every day that month, often in sub-zero weather, often leaving at 8 in the morning and not returning home until after 10 at night.

Inside the one-room home, she reached down and gently took the girl's hand and she could feel the girl's fingers faintly trying to squeeze her hand.

"She was too weak to even whisper," Susan remembered.

She reached inside her black leather bag and gave the girl some medicine.

After a while, the stimulants took effect, and the girl was able to talk a little. She said she was so tired, so weak and hungry. The girl had not eaten in 5 days, no one had.

That day, she stayed 2 hours in the one-room house, as long as she could. She left all the medicine she had and promised she would return soon. Then she got back in the buggy and rode ten miles back across the reservation, heading to her office, stopping in to treat other patients along the way, finally arriving home about 5 p.m.

Her team was exhausted, so she got a new team and found a sled and stopped by to pick up her older sister and another young woman, both of whom had also gone to Hampton, both of whom were the young girl's friends and wanted to try to comfort the girl. They loaded up the sled with milk and eggs and meat -- and they rode all the way back to the one-room house on the frozen prairie.

When they arrived, they unloaded the sled, brought all the food inside, cooked a large meal, and fed the young girl and her family. The food and medicine had given her a little more strength and she was able to talk to them a little bit.

"It seemed so hard to die without seeing you girls," she told them.

The next day, and every day for the next 2 weeks, sometimes twice a day, she hitched up her team and got into her buggy and rode to the one-room house to be with the young girl.

Then one day her brother-in-law got very sick, then 2 more relatives and then her elderly mother became dangerously ill, so she had to stay and take care of them and, for 3 days, she could not make the journey to the one-room house.

On the fourth day, she got her horses hitched to the buggy and left once again on the long ride through the early evening darkness to see her patient.

The young girl was having a difficult day. She had gotten weaker, her breathing more difficult. All day, lying on a mattress on the floor, in the corner beneath her Hampton photographs, she stared at the door, whispering the same questions over and over.

Is Susan coming today?

Will she see me today?

Yes, her husband told her, she will come today. She will see you.

That evening, while the buggy was still making its way through the snow to her, in the corner of the one-room house, alone on the sprawling, frozen prairie, the young girl died.

The young girl's death helped nurture a dream that Susan eventually became obsessed with: The dream of consolidating all of her far-flung patients into one location. Of seeing 40 patients 6 blocks from her home instead of riding for hours across a frozen prairie to see just one. The dream of building her own hospital.

On January 8, 1913, her dream came true. The nation's first modern, Native-built reservation hospital opened its doors in Thurston County, Nebraska -- a gleaming 39-room building with a maternity ward, an operating room, and 2 general wards. The hospital also boasted another first: It had been built without a single penny of public tax dollars. Dr. Susan La Flesche had raised all of the $9,000 to build the hospital by herself.

Joe Starita was the New York bureau chief for Knight-Ridder newspapers and a veteran investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. His stories have won more than three dozen national awards, including two Pulitzer Prize nominations. For the last 15 years, he has held an endowed professorship at the University of Nebraska College of Journalism.

Excerpted from A WARRIOR OF THE PEOPLE: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor by Joe Starita. Copyright (C) 2016 by the author. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin.

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Comments

Beautiful story, but so sad...

— Susanna Levin, NP

Amazing lady

— mike adams

Pride and sadness when I read this. Pride for knowing that the strength and courage of native women runs deep enough to overcome so many obstacles and sadness knowing that there are still those going without necessary treatment in this day and age.
— Cherokee Moore Mirza

Dr.La Flesche graduated from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania. WMC was founded in 1850 by members of the Society of Friends to allow women to study medicine and earn MD degrees. WMC has gone through many changes over the years and is now part of Drexel Univesity College of Medicine.

— Bernadette DeArmond

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