Women in the 21st century are breaking barriers all over the world. In America, the women’s movement has transformed society. And even in the most repressive countries, women are demanding rights and helping create revolutions. All of this seems so recent, so modern.
Yet, way back in 1865—right after the Civil War— a baby girl born in a buckskin tipi on the wild frontier went on to make history in ways that seem remarkable, even today.
Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman doctor is one of the most extraordinary yet little-known figures in American history. She studied medicine at a time when few women dared, traveled on horseback to care for hundreds of patients, both Indian and white, became a wife and mother while practicing her full time career and without government help built a hospital on the Omaha reservation. By the time of her death she was, in all but name, chief of the Omaha tribe.
But her greatest challenge went much deeper—to the very core of her identity. It began with her father’s advice: leave the past behind, go forward into the white man’s world.
Susan’s father,Iron Eye, was chief of the Omaha tribe. He was half French and believed that to survive the coming “flood” of whites, the Indians would have to adapt. So he put young Susan and her sister Marguerite on a train and sent them east into an unknown universe.
What happens when you put on different clothes, speak a new language, practice a different religion? Celebrated as a model Indian by her white benefactors, Susan returned home to her people. Not just to practice medicine, but to “elevate them.” To save them.
Herein lies the core of her struggle: Is it possible to be one with the people you ‘re trying to rescue? Or does it create a wall of distrust and resentment, no matter what your intentions?
As Susan grew older, she suffered from terrible infections in her head and neck, but she kept on working—and struggling to find a way back to her people. Susan LaFlesche Picotte died in 1915, having achieved what a newspaper obituary called “great and beneficial ends over obstacles almost insurmountable.”
Her life shows what one woman can do as the drums of change beat on.