HerStory July 2020: Susan La Flesche Picotte

July’s HerStory recipient is Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman in the US to receive a medical degree.

Inspired by witnessing the tragic death of a Native American woman because a white doctor refused to treat her, Dr. La Flesche Picotte pursued her education aggressively. Her childhood was, in a word, complicated. Both parents straddled the worlds of European and Native American ancestry, and the resulting struggle between cultural pride and a belief in assimilation-for-survival surely affected and inspired much of what Picotte accomplished. Her father became Chief of the Omaha tribe, but his leadership pushed the tribe toward white acceptance. Picotte was not given an Omaha name, and even though her mother in particular spoke Omaha exclusively, Picotte was encouraged to speak English. This seems to be a fitting metaphor for what the First Nations people as a whole were struggling with at the time (mid-to-late 1800s, but also, honestly, now too): the balancing act between honoring their culture and traditions, while making themselves “safe” for and from the white colonizers. 

Picotte was able to navigate this tight-rope well; in applying for grants to attend medical school, she made sure to indicate that she’d teach hygiene to her fellow American Indians, as well as treating them medically. You see, the mission statement of the Women’s National Indian Association included “civilizing” the “Indians” by teaching them about cleanliness and godliness. (Excuse us while we vomit into our knitting bags). She graduated from medical school, not only the first Native American woman to do so, but also the first person, period, to receive federal aid for professional education. She returned home and provided medical care to all who needed it, working diligently on the reservation both as a doctor and as an advocate for Native American’s rights. She pushed for prohibition, as she saw alcohol abuse as a huge problem in her community, used primarily by the colonizers to take advantage of her people and keep them down. She helped to found the first hospital on a reservation, and inspired many Native American women to pursue medicine. She worked tirelessly for her community, fighting her way through the convoluted land-ownership laws and policies, so the Omaha people could gain more autonomy in their ownership of and inheritances of properties. She aspired to and achieved great things in her short 50 years on the planet, and has earned her place in HerStory. 

Our Omaha colorway is our homage to her persistence and hard work. Her legacy is long-reaching, and we are honored to be honoring her this month.