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La Flesche Picotte, Susan

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first Native American woman to become a physician. She served her community tirelessly in this capacity, and in others as well—as a missionary, as a representative of her people in the East and in the nation's capital, and as a politically active temperance advocate.

La Flesche Picotte was born June 17, 1865. She was the daughter of Joseph La Flesche (Insta Maza, or "Iron Eye"), who was half Omaha and half white and had become a chief of the Omahas in 1853. Her mother was Mary Gale (Hinnungsnun, or "One Woman"). Her half-brother, Francis La Flesche, was a noted ethnologist and interpreter.

Both her parents worked closely with Presbyterian missionaries in the region. The Omaha tribe was considered by missionaries to be exemplary of what other tribes could become. The federal government had already begun individual allotment of Omaha tribal lands by the 1870s, a process that did not get started among many tribes until the next century. La Flesche Picotte grew up in a frame house on a plot of land in her father's name. Her family was Christian, influential, and respected, and emphasized the importance of education. La Flesche Picotte attended Protestant missionary schools until she was 13, at which time she followed in the footsteps of her sister Susette La Flesche Tibbles and went off to the Elizabeth Institute, a finishing school for young ladies in New Jersey. In 1882 she returned to teach at a mission school on the reservation.

Education and the Connecticut Indian Association

In 1884 La Flesche Picotte enrolled at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute. Hampton had been founded with the goal of educating black freedmen but was experimenting at the time with Indian education as well. During her tenure at Hampton, La Flesche Picotte came into contact with the Connecticut Indian Association, which had been founded in Hartford in 1881 and was a branch of the nationwide Women's National Indian Association (founded in Philadelphia in 1879). This group was one of many Protestant women's organizations of the late nineteenth century dedicated to improving the welfare and morality of Native Americans according to the standards and values of middle-class Protestants.

La Flesche Picotte's Presbyterian background provided her with the qualities that would make her an ideal symbol of a "progressive" Indian—an eager to embrace change for her people along Euro-American lines. In 1886 she graduated from Hampton and gave a speech, reprinted in Relations of Rescue, which demonstrates the nature of her sense of mission: "From the outset the work of an Indian girl is plain before her.… We who are educated have to be pioneers of Indian civilization. We have to prepare our people to live in the white man's way, to use the white man's books, and to use his laws if you will only give them to us." She went on to underscore her religious beliefs, saying, "the shores of success can only be reached by crossing the bridge of faith."

The Connecticut Indian Association was interested in training "native missionaries" who would foster the development of Christian lifestyles among their own people. La Flesche Picotte seemed a perfect candidate, so they agreed to fund her medical training at the Woman's Medical College at Philadelphia. She began study there in October 1886, a few months after finishing at Hampton. Throughout medical school she corresponded with her friend Sara Kinney, the president of the Connecticut Indian Association, assuring her that her professional goals were linked to her desire to return to Nebraska and help her people. When not busy studying, she exhibited her community-oriented nature by speaking to church groups and visiting the Lincoln School for Indian children near Philadelphia. Yet despite her time-consuming extracurricular activities, she graduated at the top of her class in 1889.

Soon after graduation La Flesche Picotte departed on a speaking tour to association branches in Connecticut, which added greatly to the group's membership rolls. Then she returned to Nebraska, as promised, and won a government appointment as physician for the Omaha Agency. Since she was the first Native American woman to become a physician, this was the first such post to be occupied by a Native American woman, and among the first to be filled by any Native American. In 1893 she resigned in order to care for her ailing mother.

Marriage and Temperance

La Flesche Picotte herself was suffering from ill health at this time, too. The break from medical practice afforded her the time not only to convalesce and to care for her mother, but also to get married. She had promised her sponsors at the Connecticut Indian Association, who took an active interest in her personal life, that she would delay getting married until after she had practiced medicine for a few years. This promise she had kept and was married in 1894 to Henry Picotte, a Yankton Sioux who had gained popularity among the Omaha as a good storyteller. Picotte also had a reputation as a heavy drinker, which may be why her family opposed the marriage. The La Flesche family already had ties with the Picottes, because Henry's brother Charles had married Susan's sister Marguerite six years earlier. The couple settled at Bancroft, Nebraska, and had two sons, Caryl and Pierre.

Despite her marriage to a man who was fond of drinking, La Flesche Picotte herself was a teetotaler and was developing a strong dedication to temperance. This probably caused some tension in her marriage, and it certainly created rifts between her and her tribe. Members of the Omaha tribe had been granted citizenship a great deal earlier than other Indians (citizenship for all Indians did not come until 1924), but citizenship carried with it the right to buy alcohol—a right that previously had been closely curtailed.

After citizenship, there was no more government supervision of the sale of alcohol on the reservation and there was no longer enforcement of the prohibitive laws by the tribal police. La Flesche Picotte viewed the increase in drinking on the reservation with trepidation. According to Relations of Rescue, in 1914 she looked back on this time and wrote, "Intemperance increased … men, women, and children drank; men and women died from alcoholism, and little children were seen reeling on the streets of the town; drunken brawls in which men were killed occurred, and no person's life was considered safe." The drinking affected her in direct personal ways as well. She worried not only about her husband's drinking, but about her brother's, too. She took a direct involvement in the lives of women who faced abuse from drunken husbands.

La Flesche Picotte's vocal and active opposition to the sale and drinking of alcohol on the reservation caused controversy and was resented by other progressive, white-educated Indians, who found her views condescending. They failed to understand why Indians were less capable than whites when it came to exercising their right to use alcohol. La Flesche Picotte felt that such legalistic arguments were out of place in the midst of what she considered a dire social crisis. She exacerbated the division between herself and members of her community by supporting white politicians who, for reasons different from her own, supported prohibition of the sale of liquor to Indians. She boasted of her influence in banning alcohol sales in the newest reservation town of Walthill, Nebraska, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a federal office which was of course not universally admired by Indians. While many Omaha leaders were enraged by the brutal treatment of Indians arrested for drunkenness by white officials, she defended the arrests. This kind of controversy was not new to her, though, as her father had also long been an advocate of temperance. In Relations of Rescue, she excused the resentment held for her by many of her tribespeople with statements like: "I know that I shall be unpopular for a while with my people, because they will misconstrue my efforts, but this is nothing, just so I can help them for their own good."

Final Years and New Directions

After her husband died in 1905 of an illness that may well have been related to alcoholism, La Flesche Picotte was appointed by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions as missionary to the Omaha. In the years following, animosities toward her by some members of her tribe would be eclipsed by her positive work on their behalf. One of her activities was to improve public health by pressing for modern hygienic and preventative standards among the Omaha. In 1913 she realized a lifelong goal and saw the opening of a hospital for the Omaha at her new home in Walthill, Nebraska. But she served her tribespeople in other ways as well. In 1910 she headed a tribal delegation to Washington, D.C., to discuss issues of citizenship and competency—a fuzzy and often abused legal prerequisite for Indian citizenship—with the Secretary of the Interior.

In the years after her husband's death she began to distrust the role of the government in supervising tribal life, a role which she had heretofore always encouraged. Part of her change in attitude resulted from the difficulty she had in assuming control of the inheritance left by her husband for their two sons. Government officials insisted that care of the inheritance should be given to a hard-drinking distant relative who had only visited the children once and lived in another state. Only after submitting references from white friends was she granted the right to supervise the monies. This encounter with government bureaucracy angered her and fueled a major turnaround in the way she viewed the relationship between Indians and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She had once likened her tribe to "little children, without father or mother." Now she said, as quoted in Relations of Rescue, "this condition of being treated as children we want to have nothing to do with … the majority of the Omahas are as competent as the same number of white people."

Shortly before her death in 1915, La Flesche Picotte demonstrated her newfound distance from former white mentors (women like Sara Kinney and anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher) by expressing her support for a new Native American religious movement that worried Protestant missionaries: the Peyote Religion, a pro-temperance Christian denomination that later became known as the American Indian or Native American Church.

La Flesche Picotte became a great deal more than the first Native American woman physician. She was a symbol for many marginalized groups who sought empowerment in the nineteenth century. She was a shining light not only for the Indian rights movement, but for the women's movement as well. She was ahead of her time as a Native American activist because she was among the earliest Indian leaders to look beyond the interests of her own tribe and address the broad issues facing Native Americans in general. She never failed to speak her mind in the face of castigation either from fellow tribespeople or from white supporters. Her courage, in concert with a rare physician's compassion, made her a unique and effective leader for her people.

Books

Native American Women, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, Garland Publishing, 1993.

Pascoe, Peggy, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1990.

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