Voluntary Associations Among the Omaha Indians

Many American Indian nations had formal groups which cross-cut kinship ties. These formal groups, known as voluntary associations, sodalities, warrior societies, military societies, and healing societies, had names, membership rules, and even their own special ceremonies. Among the Omaha there were two kinds of voluntary associations: (1) social groups, and (2) secret societies. Included in the social groups are the warrior societies. The secret societies often had knowledge of medicines which were used for healing. Ethnologists Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their classic 1911 ethnography The Omaha Tribe, report:

“The secret societies dealt with mysteries and membership was generally attained by virtue of a dream or vision.”

Continue reading

The Omaha Family

Anthropologists have long used the Omaha as the classic example of a family structure which is centered around a patrilineal clan. The Omaha clan is a named, extended lineage in which members observe common restrictions concerning food and have certain ritual obligations because of clan membership. Clans were exogamous, meaning that one could not marry someone from the same clan. There was also a prohibition from marrying within the mother’s clan. Membership in the clan is through the male line (patrilineal descent) which means that each individual, male or female, belongs to the father’s clan.

Among the Omaha, the ten clans were divided into two moieties: the Sky People and the Earth People. The Earth People were in charge of the physical welfare of the people, while the Sky People were the custodians of ceremonies relating to creation, the stars, and cosmic forces. While the Omaha clans were exogamous, the Omaha moieties, were not required to be exogamous. However, marriage outside of one’s own moiety was considered to be ideal.

During the buffalo hunt camps, the Sky People would camp in the northern half of the camp circle and the Earth People in the southern half. The Earth People included the Elk Clan (which controlled the sacred tent of war and war ceremonies), the Buffalo Clan (also called the Black Shoulder Clan), the Leader Clan (this clan traditionally provided the keepers for the tribe’s sacred objects), To the Left of the Leader Clan (this was a collection of sub-clans), and Kansa Clan. The Sky People included the Gray Wolf Clan (also known as the Earth Maker Clan), the Buffalo Tail Clan, the Deer Head Clan, the Red Newborn Buffalo Calf Dung Clan, and the Flashing Eyes Clan.

With regard to marriage among the Omaha, Bradley Ensor, in an article in Ethnology, reports:

“Marriage often involved individual choices sanctioned by the parents.”

There were times when a marriage was arranged by the girl’s parents. In an arranged marriage the groom was usually a mature, established man who paid a bride price.

In their entry on the Omaha in the Handbook of North American Indians, Margot Liberty, Raymond Wood, and Lee Irwin write:

“Most marriages took place through elopement, which was confirmed when the couple returned to the lodge of the husband’s father, where a feast was held and gifts were exchanged between the two families.”

Divorce was common and the children and the home remained with the wife.

When a young man married he lived with his wife’s family until the birth of their first child. Then he and his family would return to his father’s home where he would live.

A man was obliged to marry his brother’s widow. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, report:

“Should he fail in this respect, he was liable to suffer in person or property, either by the act of the woman herself or by that of her near kin, in order to force him to recognize or make good her rights.”

The Omaha had a number of in-law avoidance practices. According to R.H. Barnes, in his book Two Crows Denies it: A History of Controversy in Omaha Sociology:

“A man would not speak to his wife’s parents or grandparents but had to converse with them by addressing his wife or child and requesting them to repeat the question or statement. A reply would be made through the same channel.”

The birth of a child was seen as more than an addition to the clan and tribe. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report that a child is

“a living being coming forth into the universe, whose advent must be ceremonially announced in order to assure it an accepted place among the already existing forms.”

Four days after birth, certain symbols would be placed on the child. Eight days after birth, a ceremony would be held to introduce the child to the world.

Susette La Flesche, Indian Rights Activist

Susette (Yosette) La Flesche was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska in 1854. She was the eldest daughter of Joseph La Flesche and Mary Gale La Flesche. Joseph LaF lesche was the principal chief of the Omaha. With regard to Joseph La Flesche, John Little, in his biography of Susette La Flesche in Notable Native Americans, reports:

“Joseph La Flesche was a remarkable and far-seeing leader who realized that both his children and his tribe would have to adapt to and make their way in white America. He did all in his power to influence his often reluctant tribesmen to move in that direction, and he inspired his children to seek education in the English language and in American life and culture.”

Susette grew up on the Omaha Reservation and attended the Presbyterian mission school. In 1872, non-Indian philanthropic groups made it possible for her to attend the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

After graduating from the Elizabeth Institute in 1875, she returned to the Omaha Reservation with the intention of teaching. She applied for the position of elementary school teacher at the Indian Agency school on the reservation, but failed to get the job. She was told that she had to pass a teaching examination from the School Committee of Nebraska. When she applied for permission to leave the reservation to take the examination, her request was refused. She left the reservation without permission and took the test.

Later, she discovered that the Indian Office (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs) had a policy which required that Indians be given preference for positions in the Indian Service, including teaching positions. With this information, she wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. She demanded that she be given preference and in 1877 she obtained a teaching job at the Omaha Agency school. She was paid just half of what non-Indian teachers received.

Events far to the south, in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), would, however, soon impact her life. In 1877, the United States government had forcibly and brutally moved the Ponca from their Nebraska reservation to Indian Territory. The Ponca had always been at peace with the United States. At sunrise, army troops—four detachments of cavalry and one of infantry—surrounded the Ponca village and dragged men, women, and children from their cabins.  The Ponca were force-marched for 50 days to their new home where they were informed that they were now prisoners of war. During the next year, one-fourth of the Ponca died.

Among those who died of malnutrition was Bear Shield, the eldest son of Ponca chief Standing Bear. His dying wish was to be buried in the traditional Ponca land. Standing Bear decided to return north to Nebraska to bury him in traditional Ponca territory. In 1879, Standing Bear and about 65 of his people left their Oklahoma reservation and traveled to Decatur, Nebraska where they were welcomed by the Omaha and given food and shelter.

The Ponca and the Omaha are closely related tribes. At one time they had been a single people and when they had moved from the Ohio Valley into the Central Plains about 1715 they separated into two distinct tribes.

The Department of the Interior notified the War Department that the Ponca had left without permission and the army was ordered to return them to the reservation. The Ponca were detained by the army at Fort Omaha, but illness among the Indians and the poor condition of their horses made it impossible to return them to Indian Territory immediately.

While the Ponca were being held captive, Thomas Henry Tibbles, the assistant editor of the Omaha Herald, began to stir up public support for the Ponca. Tibbles arranged for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Standing Bear and his people in federal court in Omaha. The court found that the army had no authority to incarcerate the Ponca. The U.S. Attorney had argued that Indians were not persons under the law and therefore were not entitled to a writ of habeas corpus. Historian James King, in an essay in The Western American Indian: Case Studies in Tribal History, writes:

“The government’s case was simply that an Indian was neither a person nor a citizen within the meaning of the law, and therefore could bring no suit of any kind against the government.”

In Standing Bear versus Crook the United States District Court declares that an Indian is a “person” under United States law and therefore has the right to sue for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court.

Tibbles wanted to take the Ponca case to the Supreme Court so that a definitive statement on the status of Indians in the United States could be obtained. He also wanted to help the Ponca regain a Nebraska reservation. In order to gain support for the Ponca, Tibbles sent Omaha chief Joseph LaFlesche and his daughter Susette to Indian Territory to investigate the conditions which the Ponca had to endure. Upon their return, Susette La Flesche made her first appearance as a public speaker supporting the Ponca cause.

Kenny Franks, in his essay on the LaFlesche family in Encyclopedia of North American Indians, reports:

“Susette was convinced that the only solution to the ‘Indian problem’ was American citizenship. Such an action would legally give the nation’s Native American population equal status with its other residents.”

To take the Ponca case to the Supreme Court would require money. Therefore, Tibbles decided that a speaking tour featuring Ponca chief Standing Bear would be an effective way to raise both money and public support for their cause. Standing Bear, however, spoke no English. The Ponca and Omaha languages are closely related so Tibbles asked if Susette La Flesche could accompany them as an interpreter. Tibbles also suggested that Susette use the name Bright Eyes for the tour.

The tour began in Chicago in 1879. By the time they reached the Northeast, there were eager crowds waiting to hear from Standing Bear and Bright Eyes. In the Northeast, the speaking tour drew packed audiences five to seven nights a week.

The tour stayed for a month in Boston. At a presentation in Worchester, Massachusetts, U.S. Senator George F. Hoar was moved by what he heard. He wrote to President Rutherford B. Hayes expressing his concern at the wrong done to the Ponca by the American government. The President replied that he would give the matter attention.

Their visit to Boston resulted in the formation of an Indian Citizenship Committee composed of a number of prominent non-Indians.

Following Boston, the tour continued on for lengthy stays in New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Tibbles also testified before several Congressional committees.

They returned to Nebraska in 1880. John Little reports:

“La Flesche Tibbles, or Bright Eyes, had by now become a well-known public figure who would find a ready audience for both her speeches and writings for the rest of her life.”

In 1881, Thomas Henry Tibbles married Susette La Flesche (thus she also became known as Susette La Flesche Tibbles). The couple made frequent lecture trips to the eastern United States and made one lecture tour of England and Scotland in 1886-1887. Carl Waldman, in his book Who Was Who in Native American History, reports:

“In their lectures, they described Omaha and Ponca reservation conditions and argued against removal and in favor of assimilation.”

Working with Standing Bear, she co-authored Ploughed Under: The Story of an Indian Chief. In 1881, she presented a paper “The Position, Occupation, and Culture of Indian Women” before the Association for the Advancement of Women.

Writing under the name Bright Eyes, Susette La Flesche Tibbles wrote for a number of magazines. Her writings including stories about Indian life for children’s magazines as well as adult stories.

Susette La Flesche Tibbles died in Nebraska in 1903.

The Political Organization of the Omaha Indians

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Omaha Indians were living in what is now Nebraska where they were a farming people who engaged in buffalo hunting. The Omaha fields would be planted in May and tended until the corn was well established, usually late June or early July. Then the entire village would leave on the summer buffalo hunt and return to harvest the corn in September and October.

One of the principle features of Omaha social organization was the patrilineal clans. These clans were named, and membership was through the father, that is, each person belonged to the father’s clan.

The Omaha had a central government which was composed of a council of seven chiefs who were overseen by two principal chiefs. Decisions made by the council had to be unanimous. Each of the chiefs was the leader of a clan which possessed a pipe. The number seven is a sacred number because it is made up of the four cardinal directions plus up, down, and the place in the center where all directions meet. Noting the importance of the two pipes in Omaha government, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Fletche, in their 1911 book The Omaha Tribe, wrote:

“The retaining of the two Pipes as the supreme or confirmatory authority within the council rather than giving that power to a head chief was consonant with the fundamental idea embodied in the tribal organization.”

Attending the Omaha council meetings in an ex oficio capacity were the keeper of the Sacred Pole, the keeper of the Sacred Buffalo Hide, the keeper of the two Sacred Tribal Pipes, the keeper of the ritual used for filling the two pipes, and the keeper of the Sacred Tent of War. According to Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche:

“None of these five keepers had a voice in the decisions of the council, the responsibility of deciding devolving solely on the Seven Chiefs who composed the council proper.”

At the Omaha council meetings, one of the members would raise an issue or question. It would then go around the circle, starting with the man next to the man who had introduced the issue. The matter would pass around and around the circle until all came to an agreement. It was not uncommon for an entire day to be spent in deliberation in this fashion. In making a decision, ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“All must accept it and then carry it through as one man. This unity of decision was regarded as having a supernatural power and authority.”

In addition to the seven clan chiefs and the two principal chiefs, there were two other orders of chiefs among the Omaha. There were an unlimited number of lower chiefs known as Brown Chiefs (Ni’kagahi xu’de) and a higher and more limited number of Dark Chiefs (Ni’kagahi sha’be). To become a dark chief, there were seven grades which a man had to pass through. The first of these was to obtain the materials for the staff carried by the leader of the buffalo hunt. The seventh grade involved the giving of gifts to maintain peace in the tribe. When a man had done a hundred of these acts of gift giving, he was eligible to join the Night Blessed Society and to have his daughter tattooed.

Law

With regard to law, accusations of serious wrongdoing, such as murder, were not taken lightly. Many of the tribes safeguarded the social order with some form of punishment. Among the Omaha, for example, there was in the Tent of War a staff of ironwood which had a rough end. Rattlesnake poison was placed on this rough end and a person who was guilty of a major offense would be prodded with the stick, usually resulting in the offender’s death. This punishment was decided on by the council and carried out by a trustworthy man. One of the offenses punished in this way was making light of the authority of the chiefs.

Among the Omaha, deliberate murder was punished by banishment for four years. During this time the murderer had to camp outside of the village and was to communicate to no one. The offender was also required to wear a special garment which was not to be removed during the period of banishment. After the chiefs passed the sentence of banishment, they would take the Sacred Pipes to the murder victim’s family. They would present the family with gifts and ask that they not seek any further punishment on the murderer’s family.

War

Among the Omaha, the true function of war was to protect the people from outside enemies. Ethnographers Alice Fletcher and Francis La Flesche report:

“Aggressive warfare was to be discouraged; any gains made by it were more than offset by the troubles entailed.”

It was, however, difficult to stop the young men from going to war. However, there were steps that had to be taken. A younger man would go to one of the keepers of a war bundle and invite him to a ceremonial feast. By obtaining the permission of the war bundle keeper, the leader of the war party was relieved of any responsibility should a member of the party be killed. Chiefs were required to use their influence for peace and could not initiate war parties.

During the nineteenth century, Omaha war parties tended to be small: 10-15 warriors. The war party would usually leave the village at night. The warriors would wear no feathers or ornaments. When returning from a successful battle, the war party would light a fire near the village to signal their return.

Among the Omaha there were two classes of war parties: (1) those undertaken to capture horses and other valuables, and (2) those undertaken as revenge for attacks by other tribes.

The Omaha recognized six grades of war honors which could be taken from the body of an enemy:

  • Striking an unwounded enemy with the hand or with the bow. This was the highest war honor and only two warriors could take this honor from the same person.
  • Striking a wounded enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Striking a dead enemy with the hand or bow.
  • Killing an enemy.
  • Taking a scalp.
  • Severing an enemy’s head.

Among the Omaha, warriors who were recognized for their bravery were allowed to wear a Crow Belt bustle: two trailers of hide covered with feathers hung from the belt and eagle wing pointer feathers protruded upward from the base of the bustle. In an essay in Painters, Patrons, and Identity: Essays in Native American Art to Honor J.J. Brody, Aaron Fry describes the bustle:

“The main body of the bustle was made of an eagle skin with head and tail still attached; the eagle was associated with the destructive powers of the Thunder Being and the destructive nature of war. A wolf tail was tied to the right side of the skin; a stuffed crow skin was tied to the left.”

To be able to wear the Crow Belt, a warrior had to be the first to strike an unwounded enemy in battle; to be the first to touch a fallen, live enemy; to be the second to touch a fallen, live enemy; and then to repeat all three of these deeds of valor. The Crow Belt, originally created when the Omaha, Osage, Quapaw, and Kansa were living as one tribe, represents the mythic relationship between the warriors and their patrons, the wolf and the crow.

Joseph LaFlesche, Omaha Chief

From the viewpoint of non-Indians, particularly government officials in the nineteenth century, a progressive Indian leader was one who advocated the assimilation of Indians into “mainstream” American culture. One of these progressive Indian leaders was Joseph LaFlesche.

Joseph LaFlesche was the son of a French fur trader and a Ponca woman. When he married an Omaha woman he was formally adopted into the Omaha Elk clan and was thus considered to be Omaha. When his adopted father, Omaha chief Big Elk, died in 1853, many people considered Joseph LaFlesche as principal chief of the Omaha.

While many Omaha considered Joseph LaFlesche a chief, and even the principal chief, the Americans and Joseph LaFlesche considered Logan Fontelle to be the principal chief. Historian Judith Boughter, in her book Betraying the Omaha Nation, 1790-1916, reports:

“Because his father was a French trader and he was never adopted into the tribe, Logan Fontelle probably did not qualify for chieftainship.”

Logan Fontelle was killed by a Sioux war party in 1855.

Joseph LaFlesche favored adopting American ways. For example, he refused to allow his four daughters to be tattooed in the Omaha fashion as he wanted them to be able to freely mingle in Euro-American society. He also encouraged the Omaha to build houses in the American style.

One aspect of American society which Joseph La Flesche opposed was alcohol. In 1856, together with the Indian agent for the reservation, he established an Indian police force for the purpose of eliminating alcohol on the reservation. This police force was headed by Ma-hu-nin-ga (No Knife).

In 1857, the Presbyterians, with the encouragement of Joseph LaFlesche, established a mission day school for the Omaha. The children were all given English names. The LaFlesche children attended this school.

At this same time, a group of Omaha under the leadership of Joseph La Flesche began to build American-style, two-story frame houses. For this reason, the other Omaha referred to them as “Make-Believe White Men.”

In 1858, chief Joseph La Flesche organized a great council of the Omaha because of rumors that the government was planning to reduce the size of their reservation. The council reaffirmed their commitment to the Americanization program, and strenuously opposed any reduction in the reservation.

The Omaha reservation in Nebraska had been established in 1854 when the Omaha ceded all of their lands west of the Missouri River to the United States. As a part of this treaty, the United States was to protect the Omaha from attacks by other tribes, particular the Sioux.

In 1860, a Sioux war party under the leadership of Little Thunder attacked the Omaha within sight of the Presbyterian mission. As a result of this attack, many Omaha left their villages. Joseph LaFlesche and other Omaha leaders met with the Indian Agent and demanded that their treaty’s clause which called for the United States to protect them from raids by other Indian nations be honored.

In exchange for ceding much of their land to the United States, the Omaha were to receive an annual annuity payment. In 1862, Joseph La Flesche began asking why most of their annuity was paid in paper money while the more rebellious tribes received theirs in gold and silver. According to historian Judith Boughter:

“He considered the practice unfair, since it made a $7,000 difference in the Omahas’ yearly income and since the government expected its payments in coin.”

In 1865, the United States asked the Omaha to sell 100,000 acres of their reservation in Nebraska to provide a new home for the Winnebago. In the treaty, negotiated by Joseph La Flesche, Standing Hawk, Little Chief, Noise, and No Knife, the Omaha were to receive $50,000 to be used by their Indian agent to improve their reservation. The Omaha were also to be provided with a blacksmith, a shop, a farmer, and mills for 10 years.

In 1866, the Indian agent for the Omaha Reservation accused chief Joseph LaFlesche with producing discord among the tribe, leaving the reservation without permission, lending money at usurious rates, encouraging the tribal police to inflict unfair punishments, and refusing to allow people to deal with licensed traders. The agent called for him to be deposed as tribal chief and to be banished. LaFlesche’s protector, the Presbyterian mission school superintendent, was then dismissed. LaFlesche and his family hastily fled from the reservation.

A few months later, the Indian agent agreed to allow LaFlesche to return to the reservation, but only if he agreed to be subordinate to the agent. Historian Judith Boughter reports:

“LaFlesche did return home, but he never again held a seat on the tribal council and apparently was recognized as a leader only among his band of followers in the young men’s party.”

Joseph LaFlesche had several wives and at least ten children. With Mary Gale, he had five children, including Susette LaFlesche (Bright Eyes) who became an Indian activist and Susan LaFlesche who became the first Indian woman physician. With Elizabeth Esau, he also had five children, including Francis LaFlesche, who became an ethnographer.  Joseph LaFlesche died in 1888.

Dr Susan LaFlesche, Omaha Physician

Susan LaFlesche was the first American Indian woman to become a doctor and to practice Western-style medicine among her own people. She became a doctor at a time when there were only a handful of other Indian doctors trained in western medicine—Charles Eastman and Carlos Montezuma. In addition, it was highly unusual at this time for a woman to become a doctor.

Susan LaFlesche was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska in 1865. Her father was Joseph LaFlesche who had become the principal chief of the Omaha in 1854. Her father was what the Americans called “progressive” as he favored adopting American ways. He refused to allow his four daughters to be tattooed in the Omaha fashion as he wanted them to be able to freely mingle in Euro-American society. He also encouraged the Omaha to build houses in the American style and consequently she grew up in a frame house on a plot of land which was in her father’s name. In his biography of her in Notable Native Americans, Charles Cannon writes:

“Her family was Christian, influential, and respected, and emphasized the importance of education.”

One aspect of American society which Joseph LaFlesche opposed was alcohol. In 1856 he established an Indian police force for the purpose of eliminating alcohol on the reservation.

Joseph LaFlesche was the son of a French fur trader and a Ponca woman. When he married an Omaha woman he was formally adopted into the Omaha Elk clan and was thus considered to be Omaha.

Susan grew up speaking both Omaha and English. One of her brothers, Francis, became an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnography; one sister, Susette, became an outspoken and well-known Indian rights activist; and another sister, Marguerite, became an educator.

Susan’s formal education began in the Presbyterian Mission School on the Omaha Reservation. In 1879, Susan and her sister Marguerite entered the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

She returned to the Omaha Reservation in 1882 and worked at the mission school. Among her duties was some of the younger students.

In 1884, Susan and Marguerite enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. Hampton had been established for the education of free slaves and welcomed Indian students. Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the founder of the Hampton Institute, wrote about educating Indian children:

“Savages have good memories; they acquire but do not comprehend; they devour but do not digest knowledge. They have no conception of mental discipline.”

She graduated from Hampton in 1886 and was the salutatorian at the graduation ceremony. She advocated the assimilation of Indians into Euro-American culture:

“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.”

Susan had always wanted to become a doctor and her teachers encouraged her to go on to medical school. However, the cost of medical school was a significant barrier. The Connecticut Indian Association agreed to pay for most of her education and they persuaded the Indian Office (as the Bureau of Indian Affairs was then called) to continue to provide some support.

The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia admitted Susan as a beneficiary student. It was unusual for women at this time, let alone Indian women, to enroll in medical school. Medical education was strictly segregated by gender. Charles Cannon reports:

“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.”

Susan graduated in 1889 at the head of a class of 36 women. She returned to Nebraska as the physician at the government boarding school. She was soon seeing adults as well as children as she spoke their language. When the government physician left, she was placed in charge of the health care for the 1,244 tribal members. In his book Who Was Who in Native American History: Indians and Non-Indians From Early Contacts Through 1900, Carl Waldman reports

“…La Flesche served as the reservation doctor for the Omahas, seeing hundreds of patients and helping stem influenza, dysentery, cholera, conjunctivitis, typhoid, and tuberculosis, all chronic to the reservation.”

In 1891, influenza struck the reservation. Traveling throughout the rural area of the reservation, she treated 114 patients in a single month. Travel from house to house was generally by horse and buggy and often over rough terrain. If the patient was only a mile or two away, she would often walk.

In 1893, she resigned from her position as the government physician to the reservation. Her health had declined to the point where she felt she could no longer do the work required. The following year she became engaged to Henry Picotte (Sioux), the brother of her sister Maguerite’s late husband.

Like her father, she was concerned about the impact of alcohol on the Omaha people. Like many women of this time—both Indian and non-Indian—she became involved with the temperance movement. She wrote:

“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.”

Her concern for alcohol became much more personal as her husband’s drinking increased. In 1905 her husband died from complications from drinking. She was left as the sole support of an invalid mother and two small children.

The following year, she purchased a house lot in the newly formed town of Walthill, an alcohol-free area, and built a modern home. She moved into this home with her two children and her mother.

Even though she was no longer the government physician for the reservation, she continued to help the people with her medical skills. She was one of the organizers of the Thurston County Medical Association and advocated for a hospital in Walthill. The hospital became a reality in 1913 and was opened for the treatment of both Indian and non-Indian patients.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte died in 1915 at the age of 50. The hospital which she helped to create was renamed in her honor. Charles Cannon writes:

“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.”

American Indian Women: Susan LaFlesche

Susan LaFlesche was the first American Indian woman to become a doctor and to practice Western-style medicine among her own people. She became a doctor at a time when there were only a handful of other Indian doctors trained in western medicine-Charles Eastman and Carlos Montezuma. In addition, it was highly unusual at this time for a woman to become a doctor.  

Susan LaFlesche was born on the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska in 1865. Her father was Joseph LaFlesche who had become the principal chief of the Omaha in 1854. Her father was what the Americans called “progressive” as he favored adopting American ways. He refused to allow his four daughters to be tattooed in the Omaha fashion as he wanted them to be able to freely mingle in Euro-American society. He also encouraged the Omaha to build houses in the American style.

One aspect of American society which Joseph LaFlesche opposed was alcohol. In 1856 he established an Indian police force for the purpose of eliminating alcohol on the reservation.

Joseph LaFlesche was the son of a French fur trader and a Ponca woman. When he married an Omaha woman he was formally adopted into the Omaha Elk clan and was thus considered to be Omaha.

Susan grew up speaking both Omaha and English. One of her brothers, Francis, became an ethnologist with the Bureau of American Ethnography; one sister, Susette, became an outspoken and well-known Indian rights activist; and another sister, Marguerite, became an educator.

Susan’s formal education began in the Presbyterian Mission School on the Omaha Reservation. In 1879, Susan and her sister Marguerite entered the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

She returned to the Omaha Reservation in 1882 and worked at the mission school. Among her duties was teaching some of the younger students.

In 1884, Susan and Marguerite enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia. Hampton had been established for the education of free slaves and welcomed Indian students. Samuel Chapman Armstrong, the founder of the Hampton Institute, wrote about educating Indian children: “Savages have good memories; they acquire but do not comprehend; they devour but do not digest knowledge. They have no conception of mental discipline.”

She graduated from Hampton in 1886 and was the salutatorian at the graduation ceremony.

Susan had always wanted to become a doctor and her teachers encouraged her to go on to medical school. However, the cost of medical school was a significant barrier. The Connecticut Indian Association agreed to pay for most of her education and they persuaded the Indian Office (as the Bureau of Indian Affairs was then called) to continue to provide some support.

The Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia admitted Susan as a beneficiary student. It was unusual for women at this time, let alone Indian women, to enroll in medical school. Medical education was strictly segregated by gender.

Susan graduated in 1889 at the head of a class of 36 women. She returned to Nebraska as the physician at the government boarding school. She was soon seeing adults as well as children as she spoke their language. When the government physician left, she was placed in charge of the health care for the 1,244 tribal members.

In 1891, influenza struck the reservation. Traveling throughout the rural area of the reservation, she treated 114 patients in a single month. Travel from house to house was generally by horse and buggy and often over rough terrain. If the patient was only a mile or two away, she would often walk.

In 1893, she resigned from her position as the government physician to the reservation. Her health had declined to the point where she felt she could no longer do the work required. The following year she became engaged to Henry Picotte (Sioux), the brother of her sister Maguerite’s late husband.

Like her father, she was concerned about the impact of alcohol on the Omaha people. Like many women of this time-both Indian and non-Indian-she became involved with the temperance movement. She wrote: “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.”

Her concern for alcohol became much more personal as her husband’s drinking increased. In 1905 her husband died from complications from drinking. She was left as the sole support of an invalid mother and two small children.

The following year, she purchased a house lot in the newly formed town of Walthill, an alcohol-free area, and built a modern home. She moved into this home with her two children and her mother.

Even though she was no longer the government physician for the reservation, she continued to help the people with her medical skills. She was one of the organizers of the Thurston County Medical Association and advocated for a hospital in Walthill. The hospital became a reality in 1913 and was opened for the treatment of both Indian and non-Indian patients.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte died in 1915 at the age of 50. The hospital which she helped to create was renamed in her honor.