Susan La Flesche Picotte
Susan La Flesche Picotte was a woman ahead of her time; a pioneering Native American physician, religious leader and public health advocate.
Born on Nebraska’s Omaha Reservation in 1865, she attended homeschool up until age 14 before enrolling at Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey and Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia – known for providing excellent education for black students (Booker T. Washington had also studied there earlier).
Early Life and Education
Susan La Flesche Picotte was born in 1865 as Joseph La Flesche acknowledged that his tribe would need to adapt into Anglo-American society. To support his children’s integration, Joseph prioritized education and Christian values for his daughters’ upbringing, sending Susan East for better opportunities; first at Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey then Hampton Normal and Agricultural School (Booker T Washington attended there ten years earlier).
As soon as she returned home to Nebraska she established a medical practice at the Omaha Indian Reservation. There she delivered babies, treated tuberculosis, influenza, cholera and various other diseases and worked tirelessly against its sale on reservations. She was particularly outraged at how alcohol affected Native American communities and worked to stop its sale there.
Even without financial support, she was encouraged by family and friends to pursue her educational and professional goals. She became the first Native American woman in America to receive a medical degree as well as helping create a reservation boarding school.
After graduation, she served as a physician on the Omaha Reservation and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs – serving 1,244 patients over an area covering 1,350 square miles.
At a time when women were expected to focus on motherhood and homemaking, Picotte defied convention and continued working full time. She later married Yankton Sioux Henry Picotte – who performed in Wild West shows – and they welcomed two sons, Caryl and Pierre into their family unit before eventually settling in Bancroft Nebraska where Picotte established a private practice.
Achievement and Honors
Picotte managed to enroll at the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania despite it being uncommon for women at that time, graduating top of her class three years later in 1889.
Joseph La Flesche (Iron Eyes), was an Omaha chief who encouraged his children to seek education and form relationships with white reform groups, prompting Picotte to travel East. There she attended Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey as well as Virginia’s Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute – two schools attended by Black students whose descendants included those of enslaved Africans.
Picotte treated thousands of patients on the Omaha Reservation during her career and helped to ensure their lives were healthier. Her work has been recognized with a statue dedicated to her in her honor as well as by Joe Starita’s book A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor (2016) as well as by documentary Medicine Woman (2017).
Susan La Flesche Picotte was an extraordinary mother and family woman who defied culture and expectations both as a medical practitioner and an advocate for Indian rights. As a child she witnessed an elderly Indian woman pass away unattended by white doctors; that experience inspired her to become one herself and eventually pursue medicine as a career.
She dedicated her life to promoting health, healing illness, and serving the community. Working alongside anthropologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher helped preserve Umonhon (Omaha Tribe) traditions and rituals.
She pioneered what are now known as social determinants of health in her private practice, advocating for hygiene practices, including school inspections and sanitary ice cream dishes; fighting tuberculosis; campaigning against alcohol after the death of her hard-drinking husband; as well as advocating the Peyote Religion.
She has made numerous film and television appearances including ‘Meet Me in St. Louis”, “The Last Ship”, and “Man with a Plan”, portraying Ashley Burns from each series and Kate Burns respectively. Additionally, she has worked on various community projects that assist Omaha residents.
David Kaufman and Lisa Picotte, two prominent voice artists in the film industry, raised her to be Christian with strong Christian roots and are very supportive of her endeavors as an actress and brand promoter respectively. She currently resides in Los Angeles with her family while continuing to work as an actress as well as engaging in brand promotions and advertisements – her determination and strength of character are an inspiration to others.