History Nebraska Blog

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, First Native American Woman Physician

If you could travel back in time to October 3, 1910, you might see Dr. Picotte opening the door to welcome White Horse, in need of advice on building a new house, or “Theresa B.” wanting a telephone call placed to the Government Office about her daughter’s money. Later that evening, you might catch Picotte on her way out for a Tribal Council Meeting. Later still, you would see a light on as Picotte drafted a letter to the Office of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., for Nedair Walker, who wanted the patent in fee to her heirship lands. Picotte’s journal entries from 1910-11 tell hundreds of similar stories.

It wasn’t just advice seekers and ill individuals who flocked to “Dr. Picotte’s.” Jump ahead to March 2, 1911, for what the Walthill Times described as a “strange meeting” at Picotte’s house between three Nebraska state representatives and around sixty Omaha tribal members. The Gallagher Bill, a measure intended to protect the inheritance of Nebraska’s Native American women and children, stirred heated debate until the voice of an Omaha woman speaking confidently in her native language quieted the crowd. Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte had won their attention and their support.

Not all gatherings at the Picotte House were so combative. During September 1909 dozens of Omaha tribal members and local citizens stopped in to visit with renowned ethnologist Alice Fletcher, and on October 9, 1909, pianist Charles Cadman Wakefield played an arrangement of traditional Omaha songs for guests. Both Cadman and Fletcher were family friends. The youngest daughter of Omaha Chief “Iron Eye” (Joseph La Flesche), Susan La Flesche Picotte and her siblings were encouraged to use their social standing and educational advantages to serve their people. Her older sister Susette (“Bright Eyes”) La Flesche Tibbles served as the interpreter for Ponca Chief Standing Bear during his famous trial in 1879, and her half-brother Francis was a well-known ethnographer. Susan became the first Native American woman physician upon her graduation from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889, but the events and day-to-day activities at her Walthill home illustrate how her importance extends well beyond her “first” status.

By 1912 Picotte’s activities had moved to the newly completed hospital just up the hill. Known today as the Dr. Susan La Fleshe Picotte Memorial Hospital, the building was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1992 for its association with Picotte. In 2010 her house, built for herself and her two sons in 1907, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in recognition of her contributions to the history of Walthill and the Omaha Nation from 1907 to 1911.

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