Defying the odds, Susan La Flesche Picotte became America’s first Indigenous woman physician and practiced during a historically destabilizing time. As a young girl, Susan La Flesche had comforted a very ill Omaha woman as they waited all night for a white doctor who never came. The next morning the woman died. Out of that experience Susan dreamed of one day becoming a doctor who could minister to her people honorably.
Born on June 17, 1865, in a buckskin tepee during a buffalo hunt, Susan arrived in turbulent times―the civil war had just ended and the stripping of Indigenous lands persisted. Both her parents, Mary Gale and Joseph La Flesche, were the offspring of Native American women and white men. Joseph, the last recognized Omaha chief, had seen hundreds of Euro-American immigrants (often desperate themselves) foul the water, use up the wood, and over-trap. Most egregious of all was the wanton slaughter of buffalo. This sport by white men spelled ruin for Indigenous people who relied on bison for food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual sustenance. With this onslaught, Joseph came to believe Omaha survival depended on assimilation―he endorsed wood-frame houses and cultivation of land; he practiced Christianity and sent his four daughters to white schools.