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In 1889, Susan LaFlesche gained the distinction of being the first Native American (Metis) woman to become a doctor of medicine. As a child, Susan La Flesche had watched a sick Indian woman die because the local white doctor would not give her care. She later credited this tragedy as her inspiration to train as a physician, so she could provide care for the people she lived with on the Omaha Reservation. Susan was born on the Omaha Reservation, the daughter of Joseph LaFlesche (Metis) and Mary “One Woman” Gale (Metis). Susan’s mother, Mary Gale was the daughter of military officer and surgeon, Dr. John Gale and his Omaha wife, Nicomi (Voice of the Waters). It is interesting to note that Susan’s father, Joseph, became a chief of the Omahas. As Metis, his children were all given land grants on the Great Nemaha Half Breed Tract; however, most of them sold this land and lived on the Omaha reserve. Susan was educated at the reservation school after which she and Marguerite followed their elder sister Susette to the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey. She took three years there then returned to teach at the Presbyterian Mission school. In 1884, Marguerite and Susan returned to the East and enrolled in the Hampton (Virginia) Normal and Agricultural Institute, a school set up for Blacks and American Indians. She graduated with honours in 1886 and entered the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia the following October. She again excelled and graduated at the top of her class in 1889. She thus earned the distinction of being the first Native American woman to become a doctor of medicine. From August of 1889 to October of 1893, she served on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska as physician to her tribe.
Susan LaFlesche M.D.
After graduation from medical school and upon completion of a four-month internship Susan returned to the Omaha Reservation and worked as a physician at the local school. Shortly thereafter she was appointed as doctor for the entire Omaha Agency (1889-1893). The work included advising, teaching and interpreting and was overwhelming. In 1893 she took leave to care for her infirm mother. Additionally, she was in ill health herself. In spite of this she announced that she intended to marry Henry Picotte, the brother of Charles Picotte, her sister’s husband. Upon completion of a four-month internship she returned to the Omaha Reservation and worked as a physician at the local school. Shortly thereafter she was appointed as doctor for the entire Omaha Agency (1889-1893). The work included advising, teaching and interpreting and was overwhelming. In 1893 she took leave to care for her infirm mother. Additionally, she was in ill health herself. In spite of this she announced that she intended to marry Henry Picotte, the brother of Charles Picotte, her sister’s husband. They married in 1894 and settled at Bancroft, Nebraska, where he farmed and she practiced medicine. They had two sons, Carl and Pierre. Her husband died in 1905 and she took a subsequent appointment as missionary to the Omaha on behalf of the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions, in addition to her medical practice. Shown below are the first and last pages of a letter from Picotte to Commissioner of Indian Affairs Francis E. Leupp, November 15, 1907 (courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration). In this letter she notes that she is in poor health and asks for assistance to stem the plague of tuberculosis that is affecting her people.
Susan became politically active and in 1910 headed a delegation to Washington to address the Secretary of the Interior on citizenship for the Omaha Indians. Meanwhile she advocated for better health practices and preventive health care. She campaigned for a hospital and the facility opened in 1913. Until her death in 1915 she was an inspiration and role model to countless young Omaha Indian and Metis women. In 1913, two years before her death, she saw her life's dream fulfilled when she opened a hospital in the reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska. Today the hospital houses a museum dedicated to the work of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte and the history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.
Reference Parins, James W. “Susan LaFlesche Picotte,” in Gretchen M. Bataille (Editor). Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing, 1993: 147-149.
Susan, her sister Marguerite, and their husbands, Charles Picotte and Henry Picotte
Compiled by Lawrence Barkwell Coordinator of Metis Heritage & History Research Louis Riel Institute