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Seward’s GFWC Women’s Club learned more about an important person in Native American history.
Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American doctor in the Untied States. She was born on the Omaha reservation in 1865.
Christine Lesiak, who made a documentary about Picotte called “Medicine Woman” for PBS, spoke to the GFWC Women’s Club May 9 about the doctor.
Lesiak said Picotte knew she wanted to be a doctor after a sick woman died. A doctor had been called for her, but he was too busy to help “just an Indian.”
Picotte’s father sent her and her sister east because he was afraid they would not be influential if they stayed on the reservation.
Lesiak said Picotte was just 14 at the time. She attended school and eventually enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, which was one of the few places women could study medicine.
“Back then, they thought women couldn’t be doctors,” Lesiak said.
Lesiak said Picotte’s education was funded by a group of Presbyterian women.
“These women supported her,” Lesiak said.
Picotte graduated from medical school in 1889 at the head of her class. She was the first Native American doctor at a time when most white women could not be doctors.
Lesiak said Picotte could have stayed in the east—she was beautiful and intelligent and could’ve married well. But she missed her family and was still determined to help her people.
“She went home to become a doctor,” Lesiak said.
There, she knew the people and their language and culture. The doctor who let the Native American woman die early in Picotte’s childhood didn’t have that knowledge.
However, it wasn’t easy, Lesiak said. She said Picotte kept a diary and it contains heartbreaking stories.
“She was driven by a passion of health and seeing her people into the future,” Lesiak said.
Lesiak added that Picotte’s mantra was “fresh air and sunshine,” because she believed those helped people live healthy lives.
Picotte also helped end the practice of a village using a common cup and installed screens on homes to protect people from flies.
Despite Picotte healing many people, she was often sick herself. Lesiak said Picotte suffered from ear infections. And because there were no antibiotics at the time, she could not be treated. Eventually, her ears hurt so badly it was believed she had cancer or that her ear bones had deteriorated over time.
Picotte built a home in Walthill and had two children with her husband, who died when their children were young.
“That was a blow,” Lesiak said.
Then, in 1913, she built a hospital in Walthill. It has an open porch where patients could sit in the fresh air and sunshine.
“This was her dream from the very beginning,” Lesiak said.
Her supporters in the Presbyterian church helped her raise the funds to build it.
But in 1915, two years after the hospital opened, Picotte died at the age of 50. Lesiak said the death was caused by her ear infections.
The hospital still stands today, but it might not much longer, Lesiak said, because the building has been neglected.
But people who care about Picotte, the Omaha tribe and history are raising money and looking into grants to turn the building into a museum.
“We’ve got to save that place,” Lesiak said. “She’s one of the shining lights.”
Donations for the building can be sent to the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Hospital, 2517 H. Avenue, Walthill, NE, 68067.