Susan La Flesche Picotte From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Susan La Flesche Picotte

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Susan La Flesche Picotte

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte
Born June 17, 1865
Omaha Reservation, United States
Died September 18, 1915 (aged 50)
Walthill, Nebraska, United States
Alma mater Hampton Institute
Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania
Occupation Physician
Known for First Native American woman to become a physician in the United States

Suzanne LaFlesche Picotte (June 17, 1865 – September 18, 1915) was an Omaha Native American doctor and reformer in the late 19th century. She is widely acknowledged as the first Native American physician.[1] She campaigned for public health and for the formal, legal allotment of land to members of the Omaha tribe.

Picotte was an active social reformer as well as a physician. She worked to discourage drinking on the reservation where she worked as the physician, as part of the temperance movement of the 19th century. Picotte also campaigned to fight tuberculosis, as part of a public health campaign on the reservation. She also worked to help other Omaha Native Americans navigate the bureaucracy of the Office of Indian Affairs and receive the money owed to them for the sale of their land.

Early life[edit]

Suzanne (also spelled Susan) La Flesche Picotte was born in June 1865 on the Omaha Reservation in eastern Nebraska. Picotte’s parents were both biracial and had experienced life beyond the borders of the reservation.

Her mother, (Mary Gale), was half French and half Omaha and understood French and English, but she never spoke any other language but Omaha.[2] Her father, Joseph LaFlesche, also called Iron Eye, was also half white and half Omaha. Like Mary Gale, he identified himself as Omaha. He had been educated in St. Louis, but returned to the reservation as a young man, where he was adopted by Chief Young Elk in 1853 and became the principal leader of the Omaha tribe around 1855.[2] Iron Eye sought to help his people by encouraging assimilation, particularly through the policy of land allotment, which caused some friction among the Omaha.[3]

Picotte was the youngest of four girls, including her sisters Susette (1854–1903), Rosalie (1861–1900), and Marguerite (1862–1945).[4] Her older half-brother Francis La Flesche later became renowned as a Native American ethnologist, anthropologist and musicologist who focused on Omaha and Osage culture. As she grew, she learned the traditions of her heritage, but her mother and father, feeling that certain native rituals would be detrimental in the white world, kept their youngest daughter from receiving an Omaha name or traditional tattoos across her forehead.[5] She spoke Omaha with her parents, but her father and oldest sister Susette encouraged her to speak English with her sisters.[6]

The Missouri River near the Omaha Indian Reservation


Early education[edit]

LaFlesche’s education began early, at the mission school on the reservation, which was run first by the Presbyterians and then by the Quakers after the enactment of the “Peace Policy” in 1869.[6] The reservation school was a boarding school where whites took LaFlesche and other Native children away from their families and taught them the habits of white people in hopes of assimilating them into white society.[7]

After several years at the mission school, LaFlesche left the reservation for Elizabeth, New Jersey, where she attended the Elizabeth Institute for two and a half years.[8] She returned to the reservation in 1882 and taught at the agency school before leaving again for more education, this time at the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, from 1884 to 1886.[9]

At Hampton, LaFlesche was with her sister Marguerite, her stepbrother Cary, and ten other Omaha children. The girls learned housewifery skills and the boys learned vocational skills as part of the ongoing campaign to “civilize” Native Americans through education.[10] While LaFlesche was a student at the Hampton Institute, she became romantically involved with a young Sioux man named Thomas Ikinicapi.[11] She referred to him affectionately as “T.I.” but broke off her relationship with him before graduating from Hampton.

Female graduates of the Hampton Institute were generally encouraged to teach or to return to their reservations and become Christian wives and mothers. LaFlesche, however, decided in 1886 that she would apply to medical school.[12]

Medical school[edit]

The first building that housed the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, c. 1850

Though women were often healers in Omaha society, it was uncommon for a Victorian woman to go to medical school.[12]There were only a few medical schools which accepted women in the late 19th century; many believed that women were unfit to be doctors because they were unable to manage the mental strain of higher education.[13]

LaFlesche was accepted at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania (WMCP), which had been established in 1850 as one of only a few medical schools on the East Coast that accepted women.[14] Medical school was expensive, however, and LaFlesche was not able to afford it on her own. For help, she turned to family friend Alice Fletcher, an ethnographer from Massachusetts who had a broad network of contacts within women’s reform organizations.[15]

Fletcher encouraged Picotte to reach out to the Connecticut Indian Association, a local auxiliary of the Women’s National Indian Association (WNIA).[16] The WNIA sought to “civilize” the Indians by encouraging Victorian values of domesticity among Indian women, and sponsored field matrons whose task was to teach Native American women “cleanliness” and “godliness.”[17]

LaFlesche, in writing to the Connecticut Indian Association, had described her desire to go into the homes of her people as a physician and teach them hygiene as well as curing their ills, a goal which was in line with the Victorian virtues of domesticity which the Association wanted to encourage.[18] The Association sponsored LaFlesche’s medical school expenses, including housing, books and other supplies.[19] They also asked that she remain single during her time at medical school and for several years after her graduation.[11]

At the WMCP, LaFlesche studied chemistry, anatomy, physiology, histology, pharmaceutical science, obstetrics, and general medicine, and, like her peers, did clinical work at facilities in Philadelphia alongside students from other colleges, both male and female.[20] She was valedictorian[21] and graduated at the top of her class on March 14, 1889, after a rigorous three-year course of study.[22]

In June 1889, she applied for the position of government physician at the Omaha Agency Indian School and was offered the position less than two months later.[23]After her graduation, she went on a speaking tour at the request of the Connecticut Indian Association, assuring white audiences that Indians could benefit from white civilization.[24] She maintained her ties with the Association even after medical school; she was made a medical missionary to the Omaha after graduation, and the Association funded medical instruments and books for her during her early years of practicing medicine in Nebraska.[18]

Medical practice[edit]

A 19th-century stethoscope

LaFlesche returned to the Omaha reservation in 1889 to take up her position as the physician at the government boarding school on the reservation, run by the Office of Indian Affairs. There she was responsible for teaching the students about hygiene and keeping them healthy.[25]

Though she was not obligated to care for the broader community, the school was closer to many people than the official reservation agency, and LaFlesche found herself caring for many members of the community as well as for the children of the school.[26] From her office in a corner of the schoolyard, with the supplies provided by the Connecticut Indian Association, she helped people with their health but also with more mundane tasks, like writing letters and translating official documents.[27]

She was widely trusted in the community, making house calls and caring for patients sick with tuberculosis, influenza, cholera, dysentery, and trachoma.[27] For several years, she traveled the reservation caring for patients, on a government salary of $500.00 per year, in addition to the $250 from the Women’s National Indian Association for her work as a medical missionary.[27]

In December 1892, she became very sick, was bedridden for several weeks. She was forced to take time off in 1893 to care for her ailing mother and also to restore her own health.[28] She resigned in 1893 to take care of her dying mother, putting familial obligations in front of public work.[28]

In 1894, LaFlesche met and became engaged to Henry Picotte, a Sioux Indian from the Yankton agency who had been married before and divorced his wife.[29]Many of LaFlesche’s friends and family were surprised at the romance, but the two were married in June 1894.[30]

Picotte and her husband had two sons: Caryl, born in 1895 or 1896, and Pierre, born in early 1898.[31] Picotte continued to practice medicine after the birth of her children, depending on the support of her husband to make that possible. This was unusual for Victorian-era women, who were generally expected to stay home after marriage in order to be full-time mothers.[32] Susan’s practice included both Omaha and white patients in the town of Bancroft and surrounding communities.[25]

Public health reforms[edit]


As well as caring for her people’s immediate medical problems, Picotte sought to educate her community about preventative medicine and other public health issues, including temperance. Alcoholism was a serious problem on the Omaha reservation, and a personal one for Picotte: her husband Henry was an alcoholic.[33]Disreputable whites used alcohol to take advantage of Omahas while making land deals, and Picotte, as reservation physician and a prominent member of the community, was well aware of the damage such practices caused.[34]

Picotte campaigned against alcohol, giving lectures about the virtues of temperance, and embracing coercive efforts as well, such as prohibition.[35] In the early 1890s, she campaigned for a prohibition law in Thurston County, which did not pass, in part because of unscrupulous liquor dealers who took advantage of illiterate Omahas by handing them ballot tickets with “Against Prohibition” on them.[36] Later, she lobbied for the Meilklejohn Bill, which would outlaw the sale of alcohol to any recipient of allotted land whose property was still held in trust by the government. The Meiklejohn Bill became law in January 1897 but proved nearly impossible to enforce.[37]

Picotte continued to fight against alcohol for the rest of her life, and when the peyote religion arrived on the Omaha reservation in the early 1900s, she gradually accepted it as a means of fighting alcoholism, as many members of the peyote religion were able to reconnect with their spiritual traditions and reject alcoholic ambitions.[38]

Sanitation, tuberculosis, and other public health reforms[edit]

A public health poster from the 1920s, part of the campaign against tuberculosis in which Picotte participated.

Beyond temperance, Picotte worked on public health issues in the wider community, including school hygiene, food sanitation, and efforts to combat the spread of tuberculosis.[39] She served on the health board of the town of Walthill, and was a founding member of the Thurston County Medical Society in 1907.[40]

Picotte was also the chair of the state health committee of the Nebraska Federation of Women’s Clubs during the first decade of the 20th century.[41] As chair, she spearheaded efforts to educate people about public health issues, particularly in the schools, believing that the key to fighting disease was education.[42] From her time in medical school onwards, she also campaigned for the building of a hospital on the reservation, which was finally completed in 1913 and later named in her honor.[43]

Her most important crusade was against tuberculosis, which killed hundreds of Omaha, including her husband Henry in 1905.[44] In 1907, she wrote to the Indian Office to try to persuade them to help, but they turned her down, blaming a lack of funding.[44]Because there was not yet a cure available, Picotte advocated cleanliness, fresh air, and the eradication of houseflies, which were believed to be major carriers of TB.[45]

Picotte’s willingness to engage in political action carried over into areas other than public health. After the death of her husband, she became increasingly active in campaigns against land fraud among the Omaha.

Political involvement and the issue of allotment[edit]

Struggles with inheritance[edit]

A map of the original lands held by the Omaha and other Plains tribes (in green), and their reservations (in orange). The Omaha reservation borders the Winnebago reservation in eastern Nebraska

The issue of land allotment came up again when Picotte’s husband Henry died in 1905. He left about 185 acres of land in South Dakota to her and their two sons, Pierre and Caryl, but complications had arisen in claiming and selling it.[46] At the time of Henry’s death, the land was still held in trust by the government, and in order to receive the monies from its sale, his heirs had to prove competency.[46] Minors, such as Picotte’s sons, had to have a legal guardian who could prove competency on their behalf.[46]

The process of gaining the monies owed to them was long and arduous, and Picotte had to send letter after letter to the Indian Office to get them to recognize her as a competent individual in order to receive her portion of the inheritance, which R.J. Taylor, the agent on the Yankton reservation, finally granted to her in 1907, nearly two years after her husband’s death.[47] However, gaining her children’s inheritance proved to be a harder struggle. Another relative, Peter Picotte, was the legal guardian of her sons’ land, because it was in another state, but he refused to consent to the sale of the land.[47]

Picotte responded by bombarding Commissioner Leupp, head of the Indian Office, with letters, painting Peter Picotte as a drunk and R.J. Taylor as intransigent and incompetent, while making a case for herself as the best manager of her sons’ money.[48] This time, her letters received attention, and the Indian Office responded to her within a week of the original letters, informing her that Taylor had been ordered to ignore Peter Picotte’s objections.

Picotte invested this money in rental properties, and was able to use that income to support herself and her sons.[49] This was not the end of her fights with the bureaucracy of the federal government, however. Her children inherited land from some Sioux relatives of her husband, and she entered into another battle with the bureaucracy, which ended positively in 1908.[50]

Action for the community[edit]

Picotte’s struggles with the bureaucracy of allotment continued on behalf of other members of her community. In her position as a doctor, Picotte had gained the trust of her community, and her role as a local leader had expanded from letter writer/interpreter to defender of Omaha land interests.[50] She sought to help other Omaha who wanted to sell their lands and gain control of the monies owed to them, and she also tried to help resolve situations where whites took advantage of Indians who chose to lease land.[51]

Susan La Flesche Picotte House in Walthill, Nebraska, where she lived from 1907 until her death in 1915

Doing this work, she became increasingly aware and outraged at the land fraud committed by a syndicate of men on and around the Omaha reservation.[51] Picotte focused on the syndicate, which was made up of three white and two Omaha men who defrauded minors of their inheritances.[52] In a bizarre twist, Picotte, who had spent much of her life proclaiming that the Omaha had the same capacity for “civilization” as any white man, wrote to the Indian Office in 1909 to say that some of her people were too incompetent to protect themselves against the fraudsters and thus needed the continued guardianship of the federal government.[53] In 1910, she traveled to Washington, D.C. to speak with officials from the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA), and told them that though most of the Omaha were perfectly competent to manage their own affairs, the Indian Office had stifled the development of business skills and knowledge of the white world among Indians, and thus the incompetence of a minority of Omaha was, in fact, the fault of the federal government.[54]

This argument was the product of her campaigns against the consolidation of the Omaha and Winnebago agencies, which had been suggested in 1904 and revived in 1910.[54] Picotte had been part of a movement among the Omaha opposing this consolidation, and used letters and harshly critical newspaper articles to get her point across to the OIA bureaucracy.[55] She argued that the unnecessary red tape created by the consolidation was nothing but an extra burden on the Omaha and was further proof that the OIA treated them like children, rather than as citizens ready to participate in a democracy.[56] She continued to work on her community’s behalf until the end of her life, though much of that work seemed to be in vain, as her people lost many of their ancestral lands and became more, not less, dependent on the OIA.[57]

Illness and death[edit]

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, Walthill, Nebraska. Declared a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1993.

Picotte suffered for most of her life from chronic illness. In medical school, she had been bothered by trouble breathing, and after a few years working on the reservation, she was forced to take a break to recover her health in 1892, as she suffered from chronic pain in her neck, head, and ears.[58] She recovered but became ill again in 1893, after a fall from her horse left her with significant internal injuries.[58]

As Picotte aged, her health declined, and by the time that the new reservation hospital was built in Walthill in 1913, she was too frail to be its sole administrator.[43] By early March 1915, she was suffering greatly and died of what was probably bone cancer[59] on September 18, 1915. She is buried in Bancroft Cemetery, Bancroft, Nebraska near her father, mother, sisters and half-brother.[60]

Picotte’s sons went on to live full lives. Caryl made a career in the United States Army and served in World War II, eventually ending up in Detroit, Michigan.[61] Pierre lived in Walthill, Nebraska for most of his life and raised a family of three children.[62]

Tributes to Picotte[edit]

The reservation hospital in Walthill, Nebraska, now a community center,[citation needed] is named after Picotte and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993.

An elementary school in western Omaha Nebraska is named after Picotte. [See text on Google Maps west of 144th street, between Maple and Blondo streets].

On June 17, 2017, the 152nd anniversary of her birth, Google released a Google Doodle honoring Picotte.[63]


  1. Jump up^ Speroff (2003), 109
  2. Jump up^ a b Tong (1999), 13
  3. Jump up^ Swetland (1994), 203
  4. Jump up^ Tong (1999) 21
  5. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 25
  6. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 31
  7. Jump up^ Hoxie (1984), 54
  8. Jump up^ Tony (1999), 40
  9. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 47
  10. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 50
  11. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 78
  12. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 57
  13. Jump up^ {Morantz-Sanchez (1985), 50
  14. Jump up^ Morantz-Sanchez (1985), 76
  15. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 61
  16. Jump up^ Tong (1999) 61
  17. Jump up^ Mathes (1990), 8
  18. ^ Jump up to:a b Mathes (1990), 9
  19. Jump up^ Tong(1999), 68
  20. Jump up^ Morantz-Sanchez (1985), 75
  21. Jump up^ Vaughn, Carson (March 1, 2017). “The Incredible Legacy of Susan La Flesche, the First Native American to Earn a Medical Degree”. Smithsonian (magazine). Retrieved March 3, 2017.
  22. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 84
  23. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 86
  24. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 85
  25. ^ Jump up to:a b Diffendal (1994), 43
  26. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 91
  27. ^ Jump up to:a b c Tong (1999), 94
  28. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 100
  29. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 101
  30. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 102
  31. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 103
  32. Jump up^ Cogan (1989), 217
  33. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 107
  34. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 109
  35. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 111
  36. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 112
  37. Jump up^ Tong (1995), 25
  38. Jump up^ Tong (1995), 28
  39. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 179
  40. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 178
  41. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 181
  42. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 182
  43. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 189
  44. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 183
  45. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 184
  46. ^ Jump up to:a b c Tong (1999), 147
  47. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 150
  48. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 151
  49. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 152
  50. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 153
  51. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 155
  52. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 157
  53. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 158
  54. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 160
  55. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 165
  56. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 166
  57. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 175
  58. ^ Jump up to:a b Tong (1999), 122
  59. Jump up^ Tong (1999) 190
  60. Jump up^ “Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte”. Find a Grave. June 23, 2010. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  61. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 197
  62. Jump up^ Tong (1999), 198
  63. Jump up^ “Susan La Flesche Picotte Google doodle pays homage to 1st American Indian to earn her medical degree”. June 17, 2017.


  • Cogan, Frances B. (1989). All-American Girl: The Ideal of Real Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press. ISBN 082031062X.
  • DeJong, David (1993). Promises of the Past: A History of Indian Education in the United States. Golden, CO: North American Press. ISBN 1555919057.
  • Diffendal, Anne P. (January 1994). “The LaFlesche Sisters: Victorian Reformers in the Omaha Tribe”. Journal of the West. 33 (1).
  • Hoxie, Frederick (1984). A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0803223234.
  • Mathes, Valerie Sherer (1990). “Nineteenth Century Women and Reform: The Women’s National Indian Association”. American Indian Quarterly. 14 (1).
  • Morantz-Sanchez, Regina Markell (1985). Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195036271.
  • Speroff, Leon (2003). Carlos Montezuma, M.D. : a Yavapai American Hero : the Life and Times of an American Indian, 1866–1923. Portland, Oregon: Arnica Publishing. ISBN 0972653546.
  • Starita, Joe (2016). A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor. New York: St.Martin’s Press. ISBN 978-1-250-08534-4.
  • Swetland, Mark (August 1994). “”Make Believe White Men” and the Omaha Land Allotments of 1871–1900″. Great Plains Research. 4 (2).
  • Tong, Benson (1997). “Allotment, Alcohol and the Omahas”. Great Plains Quarterly. 17 (1).
  • Tong, Benson (1999). Susan LaFlesche Picotte, M.D.: Omaha Indian Leader and Reformer. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0806131403.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s