HISTORICAL LANDMARKS Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte
 
 

In what ways did Dr. Picotte bridge the gap between the separate spheres of men and women and Nativeness and assimilation in her work?

 
     

Dr. Picotte: Changing the Flow


Research compiled by: Adrianna B., Heather C., Jathiyah C.

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was a trailblazer. Born in Nebraska on the Omaha Reservation in 1865, Picotte was the first Native American woman in the United States to earn a medical degree. Her father was Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes), the last chief of the Omaha Tribe. At a time when most Native Americans were fighting to protect their culture from forced suppression by white Americans, Iron Eyes thought it would be best for his children to receive white education. He believed this would allow them to have a good future. So, he sent his daughter to a boarding school in 1884 when she was 19.

Dr. Picotte is significant because her life fits in to multiple trends in U.S. history. Her life’s story is an example of how women chose to conform to or challenge their expected roles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example, she chose her education over getting married, which didn’t fit with ideal womanhood. Dr. Picotte and her people also faced the challenge of deciding to assimilate to white culture or to protect their culture from the suppression of white Americans. She and her family believed in assimilation, but she was also proud of her tribal heritage and wanted to help her people. Along with being a physician for the Omaha people at a time when there were few female doctors, Dr. Picotte was an activist for her tribe, visiting Washington D.C. later in her life to fight for their land rights. She was very determined and never gave up in a time when being Native American and being a woman caused many obstacles.

All through her life, she tried to improve the lives and conditions of the people of the Omaha Tribe. One thing she was fighting for was to improve hygiene and to get rid of alcoholism, which is still a problem in the tribe today because of the effects of poverty and oppression caused by the United States’ treatment of Native Americans. Picotte should be memorialized because she defied the expectations of her gender and her cultural heritage, choosing to give back to her community and becoming one of the most helpful people to her tribe. In West Omaha, she is memorialized by having a school named after her: Picotte Elementary. Dr.Picotte was a very strong and dedicated woman whose legacy lives on to inspire people today.

"She had a foot in each world."

While away at college in Pennsylvania, Dr. Picotte wrote many letters back to her family in Nebraska. This artifact is a letter written by Susan LaFlesche to her sister Rosalie on January 12, 1887. In this letter, she explains an important decision she was making between her education and career or marrying Thomas Ikinicapi (T.I.). This helps us to understand Dr. Picotte more because at a time when women were not supposed to value their education, she chose a unique path by resisting expectations for white women. She also felt pressure to make the decision because the Connecticut Indian Association told her if she married T.I. they would not fund her medical degree. Although she chose to make college a priority when she wrote the letter, later in her career she decided to marry Henry Picotte and had two children. Like many women throughout history she faced the challenge of social pressures to balance home and career responsibilities.

Dr. Picotte really cared for her tribe because she stayed in school so she could take her knowledge back to her reservation. Dr. Picotte dressed and acted like the white women she went to school with but stayed true to her Native roots by coming back to help the reservation and by building a hospital there. As her great-nephew Dennis Farley said, “She had a foot in each world. She followed some traditional ways, and she fit in with the Euro-American elite too.” (Artifact courtesy of LaFlesche Family Collection, Nebraska State Historical Society; PDF copy courtesy of Princella Parker)
letter

A Hospital of Hope

While Susan LaFlesche Picotte was a young doctor on the Omaha Reservation, she longed for a hospital so she would not have to send her patients to Omaha or Sioux City for surgery or seek them out individually on horseback. Susan also wanted the hospital to show that her tribe didn’t need the government’s help and that the Omaha people could care for their own medical needs. She enlisted the help of community members and raised $10,000 which was enough to build a hospital in Walthill, NE, on the Omaha Reservation. The hospital opened in 1913. It contained two general wards with the capacity of twelve beds, five private wards, a maternity ward, an operating room, two bathrooms, a kitchen, and a reception room. It served both Natives and whites instead of being segregated. Just two years later, Dr. Picotte died at age fifty due to bone cancer in her ear. After her death the hospital served patients until the 1940s. In 1993, the hospital was declared a national historic landmark that honors her with displays of her life, education, culture, and tribe. Today the hospital museum is open by appointment. Like many small local historical landmarks throughout the U.S., finding enough funding is difficult, so the hospital cannot be open full time and is in need of restoration.
hospital

A Lasting Legacy

The above photo is from an OPS elementary school named after Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte. The school used to be on 1312 Robertson Drive in Omaha. The school opened in the fall of 1992. A year passed and the school moved on March 25, 1993, to 144th and Ohio Street where it is still to this day. The mascot for Picotte Elementary is a pinto (mustang), representing the horse Dr. Picotte rode to meet her patients before she built the hospital.

The school was named after Dr. Picotte as a symbol of respect for all cultures, since the city was named after her tribe. It is important that OPS chose to name a school after Dr. Picotte because even though Native Americans were the first people in Omaha, there are not many places named in their honor. The school hopes to promote and preserve her legacy to last a lifetime. It inspires students to follow their dreams to become what they want for their life while teaching the next generation about her loyalty and passion for her community. In Picotte Elementary, there is a mural timeline to illustrate the history of how the school became a reality from the beginning of the Omaha Tribe to the school today. The mural reminds students every day that no matter what challenges they may face, with hard work and determination they can accomplish their dreams.
Picotte Elementary

Additional Information

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte remains a highly regarded member of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska. Her image hangs in the contemporary hospitals on the reservation. The hospital she built stands tall on a hill in Walthill, NE, and members of the tribe still refer to her with the endearment “Dr. Sue.” While her name is well known on the reservation, her only tribute in the City of Omaha is the OPS elementary school that holds her namesake. However, as the students’ work suggests, Dr. Picotte deserves memorialization because of her commitment to her community and her determination to help her tribe adapt and survive during a time of increased tension between Native Americans and the United States.

One of the primary concerns of Native Americans in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century was how to best navigate the pressures of forced assimilation policies. Dr. Picotte is an interesting example of one strategy that some Natives chose. By actively deciding to receive a white education, to learn English, and assume the cultural and social practices of white middle-class Americans, Dr. Picotte exerted autonomy in choosing to assimilate. Both she and her family felt that making this choice would be the best option for their tribe, allowing them to adapt on their own terms rather than having their culture forcibly suppressed by white Americans. This was not the strategy of all Natives at this time; in fact, many resisted assimilation and suffered cultural genocide through institutions like boarding schools, which often effectively killed tribal languages by forcing students to speak only in English. The most famous of these schools was the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, founded by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879, who coined the phrase, “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Although Dr. Picotte freely chose to learn English and become educated in white schools, her choices did not always align with the expectations of white culture. It would be a far too simplistic a reading of Dr. Picotte to say that she simply rejected her Nativeness. Throughout her life, she demonstrated a great deal of self-determination. For example, while she dressed in the style of middle-class white women and learned the domestic responsibilities deemed a woman’s proper role under the Victorian ideology of “separate spheres,” she acted as a major public voice and presence in her tribe when she returned to them after receiving her medical degree. In this way, Dr. Picotte was like other trailblazing female reformers in the Progressive Era, particularly Lillian Wald and Jane Addams.

Legislation passed by the United States near the turn of the century also affected Native Americans throughout the country. In particular, the Dawes Act of 1887 had a major impact on the Omaha Tribe and, in turn, Dr. Picotte. This piece of legislation radically disrupted land ownership practices of Native peoples, forcing individuals to maintain ownership of 160-acre allotments rather than granting collective, tribal ownership of land. While the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska had been granted reservation land, the Dawes Act threatened the tribe’s autonomy over their reservation since another aspect of the act dictated that if all the land was not allotted to individuals, it could be reclaimed by the U.S. government and sold to others outside of the tribe. In 1909–1910, the Omaha Tribe was facing the end of the “grace period,” the time before they were required to allot all reservation land to their people. Dr. Picotte and other leaders of the tribe advocated for the tribe’s rights, traveling to Washington, D.C., to persuade officials to allow the tribe to keep the “surplus” land.

By the time of her death in 1915, Dr. Picotte had established a noteworthy legacy as a physician to her people and as a political advocate. Although her choices likely found resistance both from members of her tribe as well as others, she remained determined to do what she thought was best for the Omaha people.

 

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION SEE:
Calloway, Colin G. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. Fourth Edition. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.

Ferris, Jeri. Native American Doctor: The Story of Susan Laflesche Picotte. Reprint edition. Minneapolis: Carolrhoda Books, 1991.

Harding, David. “Doctor cared for her people on reservation.” Omaha World Herald. March 26, 2006.

“‘If you knew the conditions…’ Health Care to Native Americans.” U.S. National Library of Medicine. 23 November 2010. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/if_you_knew/ifyouknew_02.html (accessed July 27, 2015).

LaFlesche Family Papers. Nebraska State Historical Society. http://www.nebraskahistory.org/lib-arch/research/manuscripts/family/laflesche-family.htm

Lesiak, Christine. “Drums of Change- A Nebraska Story.” NET Television. 16 September 2013. http://netnebraska.org/interactive-multimedia/television/nebraska-stories-drums-change-episode-501-segment-4-4 (accessed July 27. 2015).

Mathes, Valerie Sherer. “Susan LaFlesche Picotte: Nebraska’s Indian Physician, 1865-1915.” Nebraska History 63, no. 4 (Winter, 1982): 502-530.

Parker, Princella and Christine Lesiak. Medicine Woman. NET Television. (FORTHCOMING)

“Picotte Elementary.” Omaha World Herald. October 3, 2009.

Picotte, Susan LaFlesche. “Omahas and the New Order: Indians Opposed to the Consolidation of Agency Superintendents.” Omaha Daily Bee. December 30, 1909. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1909-12-30/ed-1/seq-6/#date1=1836&index=5&date2=1922&searchType=advanced&language=&sequence=0&lccn=sn99021999&words=FLESCHE+LA+PICOTTE&proxdistance=5&rows=20&ortext=LaFlesche&proxtext=&phrasetext=&andtext=Picotte&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1

"Susan La Flesche Picotte," The Biography.com website, http://www.biography.com/people/susan-la-flesche-picotte-9440355 (accessed July 27, 2015).

Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center, Walthill, NE. http://omaha-nsn.gov/all-work-list/susan-laflesche-picotte-house/

Wilkerson, J. L. A Doctor to Her People: Dr. Susan LA Flesche Picotte. Kansas City, MO: Acorn Books, 1999.

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte and Hospital

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte and her hospital in Walthill, NE (Image Courtesy of Susan LaFlesche Picotte Center)

Lesson Plan

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte

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Picotte Documents

Student Reflections

“I learned to look behind the names and to look at the story. I liked working with new people, learning about different people and how to tell their story.”

—Heather C.


“At MIHV I’ve learned a lot about Omaha that I never knew existed. I really liked our field trip to North Omaha because I got to learn about its early musical history.”

—Adrianna B.


“I learned about Dr. Picotte in this program and saw a little more of Omaha. What I liked most about the program was our visit to South Omaha, especially the food. It is pretty cool with the murals and the restaurants. It reminds me of my hometown.”


—Jathiyah C.