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A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

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The poignant and moving biography of Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American doctor in U.S. history.

On March 14, 1889, Susan La Flesche Picotte received her medical degree—becoming the first Native American doctor in U.S. history. She earned her degree thirty-one years before women could vote and thirty-five years before Indians could become citizens in their own country.

By age twenty-six, this fragile but indomitable Native woman became the doctor to her tribe. Overnight, she acquired 1,244 patients scattered across 1,350 square miles of rolling countryside with few roads. Her patients often were desperately poor and desperately sick—tuberculosis, small pox, measles, influenza—families scattered miles apart, whose last hope was a young woman who spoke their language and knew their customs.

This is the story of an Indian woman who effectively became the chief of an entrenched patriarchal tribe, the story of a woman who crashed through thick walls of ethnic, racial and gender prejudice, then spent the rest of her life using a unique bicultural identity to improve the lot of her people—physically, emotionally, politically, and spiritually.

Joe Starita's A Warrior of the People is the moving biography of Susan La Flesche Picotte’s inspirational life and dedication to public health, and it will finally shine a light on her numerous accomplishments.

The author is donating all royalties from this book to a college scholarship fund he has established for Native American high school graduates.

ISBN-13: 9781250181312

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group

Publication Date: 07-10-2018

Pages: 336

Product Dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

JOE STARITA was the New York Bureau Chief for Knight-Ridder newspapers and a veteran investigative reporter for The Miami Herald. His stories have won more than two dozen awards, one of which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for local reporting. For the last nine years, he has held an endowed chair at the University of Nebraska’s College of Journalism. The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge won the MPIBA Award and received a second Pulitzer nomination. He is also the author of “I am a Man.”

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A Warrior of the People

How Susana La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America's First Indian Doctor

By Joe Starita

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Joe Starita
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08535-1


The Arrow

It's five A.M. on a midwinter morning, the mercury stuck at twenty below. Overhead, a canopy of constellations spills across the clean winter sky, the quarter moon a slim lantern hanging above the vast, black, desolate prairie.

She's walking to the barn, through the snow, layered in muffs, mittens, and scarves. Still, her ears are numb, her face frozen, her breathing labored.

She steps inside the barn, carefully placing a small black bag on the buggy seat. For a time, if it were less than a mile, she would just walk. Then she took to slinging the black leather bag across her saddle, making house calls on horseback. But bouncing across the rugged terrain took its toll on the glass bottles and instruments, so she eventually bought a buggy, bought her own team.

Inside, her two favorite horses wait impatiently, snorting thick clouds of steam into the ice-locker air. She grabs their harness, hitches them to the buggy, guides them out of the barn. Then she climbs in and gets her chocolate mares, Pat and Pudge, heading in the right direction, their ghostly white vapor trails hanging in the frigid blackness.

It's early January 1892, a month her people call When the Snow Drifts into the Tents. The woman in the buggy, the one lashing her team to move faster, is a small, frail twenty-six-year-old, a devout Christian who also knows her people's traditional songs, dances, customs, and language, a woman who just recently acquired 1,244 patients scattered across 1,350 square miles of open prairie now blanketed in two feet of snow — a homeland of sloping hills, rolling ranch land, gullies, ravines, wooded creek banks, floodplains, and few roads.

The air crushes her face, stings her ears. She pulls a thick buffalo robe over her shoulders to buffer the subzero winds, lashing the horses' flanks again and again until the buggy picks up the pace, its wheels moving over one ridge and then another, through deep drifts covering the remote hillsides of northeast Nebraska.

In the darkness they keep moving, keep going, and all the while, over and over, her mind keeps drifting to the same recurring thought:

Can I find her?

Will I get there in time?

* * *

They were known as the Omaha–Umon hon. In the language of her people, it meant "against the current" or "upstream," and their Sacred Legend, their creation story, said the Omaha had emerged long ago from a region far to the east, a region of dense woods and great bodies of water.

"In the beginning the people were in water. They opened their eyes but they could see nothing. ... As they came forth from the water they were naked and without shame."

In the beginning, in their eastern homeland near the Ohio River, the Omaha encountered many problems. Having emerged naked from the water, they were cold and wet and hungry, and so — meticulously and methodically — they began to look for solutions, and by and by, they found them: clothing, fire, stone knives, arrows, iron, dogs. Over time, they emerged as a practical people, a people who craved progress, who time and time again looked to conquer hardship and inconvenience with a straightforward determination, with their own ingenuity and technological innovations.

Century after century, perhaps beginning as far east as the Great Lakes, the Omaha followed a mosaic of waterways — first to the west and southwest down the Ohio and then west and northwest up the Missouri. By the middle decades of the eighteenth century, they occupied large swaths of land in northeast Nebraska and northwest Iowa, where they eventually established permanent villages along the banks of America's longest river.

In their Missouri River settlements, the Omaha lived in both igloo-shaped earth lodges and buffalo-hide tipis. Their village was divided into ten clans, and each of the kinship clans had a specific duty when it came to the tribe's most important event: the spring planting ceremonies. Each spring, usually by the middle of May, the women in the village flocked to the fields along the floodplain and began the ritual corn planting, seven kernels to a hill. Soon, varieties of beans, squash, and pumpkins also found their way into the fertile soil.

* * *

This was her land, their land, the land of her people, and now she was riding across it in the dark and bitter cold in the month When the Snow Drifts into the Tents. Below the snow lay the prairie, an endless carpet of grass that had nurtured herds of buffalo once estimated at more than forty million. Her people believed the buffalo had been a gift from Wakonda, and the great beasts had helped sustain their way of life for several centuries. But now, as the nineteenth century wound down, the endless wild herds — slaughtered at first for traders, then by railroad mercenaries and sportsmen, and finally as an instrument of government policy — had been reduced to fewer than a thousand, reduced to near extinction.

But her people were still there, still living on their prairie homeland, where many had eventually come to learn a harsh lesson of life on the American Great Plains: Adapt — or perish.

In late June, when the crops had taken root and begun to mature, the entire village broke camp, fanning out across the western plains for the annual buffalo hunt, a critical time to lay in a good supply of winter meat, a plentiful stock of hides. By late August — the month When the Elk Bellow — the Omaha were on the lookout for a sign, for something blossoming on the endless plains outside their tipi village: the prairie goldenrod. Year after year, this had been the signal to tear down the tipis, pack up, and head back to their Missouri River homeland, where abundant fields of ripened corn, beans, squash, and pumpkins were now ready for harvest.

For the women in the village of the Upstream People, their many jobs and tasks had one ultimate objective: to preserve and conserve life. But that life was often hard, a ritualized cycle of physical labor the tribe depended upon to stay in sync. Season after season, year after year, it was women who prepared the fields, planted the seeds, harvested the crops, tanned hides, lugged water, gathered wood, maintained the tipi, collected wild plants and herbs, cut buffalo meat into strips, cooked food, quilted, sewed, bore children, and raised the family.

Omaha women — like many others in tribal encampments scattered across the Great Plains — commanded positions of great respect within the social fabric of the village and held a good deal of power within the tribe. Over time, men and women acquired an equal standing within the delicately balanced rhythm of Omaha tribal life.

In their traditional villages, men did not look down on women or treat them as inferior. If a task proved too difficult physically, the husband would often help out. And before making any important change or doing anything that would affect the family, the husband first consulted his wife.

In 1869, seventeen years after publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe offered a contrasting view of the relationship between men and women, a view she saw as commonplace for traditional wives in nineteenth-century mainstream America. "The position of a married woman," she wrote, "... is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband. ... Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earn a fortune through her talents, he is sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny at all. ... In the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence."

Among the Omaha, it was women who managed all household affairs and who owned the lodge and all its contents. They were free to marry whomever they wished, could reject parental suggestions, and had the power to divorce. If a woman decided to end a marriage, she often placed all of her husband's belongings outside the lodge, an unmistakable sign that their union had ended.

From early on, young girls were never left unprotected. They were not allowed to go far from the lodge unless accompanied by an adult. And in many Indian tribes, a girl's first menstruation often was an important event, something sacred, something to be celebrated — an honor recognizing her passage into womanhood, forever binding her to the fertility of Mother Earth. Some tribes also believed that menstruating women were spiritual beings so powerful they could be called upon for enlightenment, for guidance, for advice. Sometimes they left their homes during the heaviest four days of the cycle and stayed in menstrual huts with other women, engaged in lively discussions across a variety of subjects, often about their children.

Among the Omaha, children were sacred and there were ceremonies celebrating the arrival of a newborn. The people did not believe children were born with original sin or that they were even yet members of the tribe. Instead, they believed babies were living things who had entered the cosmos, joining all other living things. So on the eighth day, a priest conducted a ceremony welcoming the baby into the universe. Soon the baby had a pair of new moccasins, with a small hole cut into the sole of one of them. This was done so if a messenger from the spirit world, where the dead reside, should ever come for the child, the child could simply say: "I cannot go on a journey — my moccasins are worn out!"

The Omaha held a second ceremony once the child could walk, a ceremony that established the child as a distinct person attached to a specific clan with a recognized place in the tribe, a ceremony designed to give the child strength, identity, and self-discipline. In the Turning the Child Ceremony, the mother walked her child to a sacred tent, its entrance facing east, a fire burning in the middle.

"Venerable man!" the mother called out to the priest. "I desire my child to wear moccasins. ... I desire my child to walk long upon the earth."

Then she dropped her child's hand and the child entered the tent alone. The priest guided the child toward the fireplace, saying: "I speak to you that you may be strong. You shall live long and your eyes shall be satisfied with many good things." The priest then lifted the child by the shoulders and, facing east, turned the child completely around, repeating his words until the child had faced all four directions. The ceremony ended when the priest put the new moccasins on the feet of the child. The priest then made the child take four steps, symbolizing the journey to a long life.

Throughout the long journey of the Omaha people, as far back as anyone could remember — whether encamped in forests, along shorelines, or by riverbanks, in summer or winter, in tipis or earth lodges, hunting or farming — there was often a recurring question, a question that formed part of their identity, a question that seemed to be deeply embedded in the Omaha's cultural lifeblood. It's a question that had sprung from their Sacred Legend, one that had been asked over and over:

What shall we do to help ourselves?

How shall we better ourselves?

* * *

The bones in her face and ears ached from knifing through the numbing air. They'd gone three miles but had another three to go, maybe more, the horses pounding up steep, snowy hills, pounding down the back side, snorting heavily, clouds of steam littering the air.

The darkness had started to fade a little now, the snow on the distant hills faintly blossoming in the soft winter light.

She stood up in the buggy, scoured the prairie in the dim dawn, looking for a solitary silhouette, looking for an outline perched on the distant horizon. But she couldn't see it, so she sat back down and whipped her team, yelling at them to go, to keep moving.

She has to make it. She has to find the one-room cabin somewhere on this frozen winter prairie. Though years apart, she and the young girl inside had gone to the same school — the same normal and agricultural college in Virginia, where after the great war they had sent the sons and daughters of black people and the sons and daughters of red people to learn how to become more like white people.

She can't let the girl down. She can't let all the others down, the ones who pushed so hard, all the time, to get her papers filed, her payments made, her books and clothes and housing and train fare taken care of. She can't let them down. But most of all, she can't dishonor his memory.

She cannot let her father down.

* * *

Their Virginia school was about 130 miles from Monticello, home of the third president of the United States, a restless, thoughtful, complex philosopher, lawyer, architect, and amateur scientist who had long harbored dreams of expanding the fledgling nation's borders to the Missouri River — and far beyond.

In Jefferson's view of democracy, the lands between the Mississippi and the Rockies, which the Louisiana Purchase had just made available, would become a bedrock of educated citizen-farmers, men and women who would create a new world order, who would become the foundation for a stable, prosperous, industrious, moral America.

So it wasn't long before her people — and many other tribal people long braided into the geographic fabric of the Great Plains — began to see the pool of fur traders, explorers, and adventurers start to expand. And with it came more and more government agents, more soldiers and peace parleys, and more and more treaties gobbling up more and more of the original native lands.

Francis La Flesche, the nation's first Indian ethnographer, would later note a feeling that was beginning to spread among the tribal villages scattered between the great rivers and mountains:

"The white people speak of the country at this period as 'a wilderness,' as though it was an empty tract without human interest or history. To us Indians it was as clearly defined as it is to-day; we knew the boundaries of tribal lands, those of our friends and those of our foes; we were familiar with every stream, the contour of every hill, and each peculiar feature of the landscape had its tradition. It was our home, the scene of our history, and we loved it as our country."

But by and by, the old way of life began to disappear — and in some years, so did the Omaha. The bustling fur trade up and down the Missouri, linking St. Louis with the Upstream People, had introduced something the Omaha could not fight, could not overcome, were helpless against.

By the time Lewis and Clark arrived in the late summer of 1804, wave after wave of epidemics had taken a toll, none more fearsome than the smallpox epidemic of 1800–1801. Sealed inside their earth-lodge homes, often living in three-generational units, the once robust, healthy people had no resistance to, no immunity from, the rapid, fatal spread of the disease, a disease that sometimes claimed entire families in a single week. By the time the disease had run its course, it was believed that more than half of the Omaha Tribe had died of smallpox.

In one form or another, these diseases would continue to stalk the people throughout the nineteenth century and beyond.

For the Omaha and all the others, the opening years and the opening decades of the nineteenth century all seemed to get progressively worse, step by step. For many of those years, the Upstream People were led by Big Elk, a chief of considerable strength, wisdom, courage, and insight. Among his people, Big Elk was revered for his visionary powers, for a unique ability to look down the road and foretell what the future might bring. And more and more as the decades wore on, as he saw more and more of the old way of life disappearing, his frustration and despair began to mount.

"I am like a large prairie wolf," he said, "running about over these barren prairies, in search of something to eat, with his head up, anxiously listening to hear some of his fellows howl, that he may dart off towards them, hoping to find a friend who has a bone to divide."

In 1837, as a guest of the U.S. government, Big Elk visited Washington, D.C.

Like those who had gone before him and the many chiefs who would follow, Big Elk returned from the urban East Coast to the rural plains of Nebraska a profoundly changed man.

With his own eyes, he had seen the flood of whites, in numbers unimaginable. He had seen their cities, their bustling stores and markets, their shops and schools, their government buildings and houses, their neighborhoods and neatly laid-out streets.

When he returned, the shaken chief, who had participated in some of the early treaty sessions, called the Omaha people together and told them of his trip east:

"My chiefs, braves, and young men, I have just returned from a visit to a far-off country toward the rising sun, and I have seen many strange things. I bring to you news which it saddens my heart to think of. There is a coming flood which will soon reach us, and I advise you to prepare for it. Soon the animals which Wakonda has given us for sustenance will disappear beneath this flood to return no more, and it will be very hard for you. Look at me; you see I am advanced in age; I am near the grave. I can no longer think for you and lead you as in my younger days. You must think for yourselves what will be best for your welfare. I tell you this that you may be prepared for the coming change. ... Speak kindly to one another; do what you can to help each other, even in the troubles with the coming tide."

More and more, Big Elk began to tell his people that the old way of life was doomed, that they could not continue to walk down that road. He told them things many did not want to hear, that they would have to change. That they would have to begin to try to understand the ways of the whites, to embrace them, to integrate some of the new ways into the old ones.

To adapt — or perish.

Before his death in 1853, Big Elk, the third member of his family to lead the tribe, faced a difficult decision: Who would succeed him as chief of the Omaha?

He knew he needed someone whose vision was compatible with his own. He knew he needed someone with strength and integrity. Someone who could begin to assimilate the Omaha into the new world order.

He needed someone like Joseph La Flesche.


Excerpted from A Warrior of the People by Joe Starita. Copyright © 2016 Joe Starita. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Authors Note xiii

1 The Arrow 1

2 The Village of the Make-Believe White Men 27

3 An Indian Schoolgirl and the Harvard Scholar 59

4 Can Black Children and Red Children Become White Citizens? 84

5 The Sisterhood of Second Mothers 108

6 Dr. Sue 122

7 Going Home 158

8 The Light in the Window 190

9 A Warrior of the People 224

10 A Beginning and an End 261

Bibliography 277

Notes 287

Index 295