Newcomers to the halls of the USDA Rural Development offices in Lincoln, Nebraska are greeted by a team of three female program directors excited about their roles in getting grant and loan funds to rural Americans in need. Their excitement is palpable, especially when Business Programs Director Joan Scheel talks about the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Hospital, in Walthill, Nebraska.
The historic site has continued its namesake’s mission of serving the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska for nearly 110 years. It is exactly the type of project Scheel and her team of Business Programs specialists are passionate about. The ongoing renovations will turn the space into a thriving business center for the Omaha people and is expected to be complete Summer of 2023.
“Once the restoration is complete, the building will provide a place of hope, a place to learn and celebrate cultures, to pursue business opportunities, and to offer health and social services,” said Scheel.
The center sits on the Omaha Reservation in Thurston County, Nebraska. It is expected to serve as a training site, business incubator, and cultural center for its community, a community that bore and raised Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree from an accredited university in 1889.
The two Rural Business Development Grants Scheel’s team were able to help award the center are special for them not just because they are helping to save a historic site, but because of the remarkable woman whose life it represents.
The story of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte could be a modern tale. She was a mixed-race child, living with the challenges of existing between her native Omaha heritage and the white world surrounding it. She was a pioneer for women of all races becoming the first Native American woman to earn a medical degree before going into practice first as a government employee, then as a private practitioner.
Born June 17, 1865 on the Omaha Reservation, Susan La Flesche’s father, Chief Joseph La Flesche, mentored her, having already faced the challenges of being mixed race in a rapidly evolving world. He provided examples of how to weave the best of his native people with the offerings of the approaching white cultures. It would be no small feat, especially for his daughters who had all the odds stacked against them as minorities within a minority, but Iron Eye as her father was also known, ensured all of his children valued the importance of education and encouraged them to go out into the world and make something of themselves.
Her father’s mentoring certainly helped, as did the examples set for her by her older sisters, who were some of the firsts in an important network of strong female supporters who surrounded Susan from an early age. White, black, and native alike, had other women not served her as teachers, guides, mentors, benefactors, examples, and friends, Susan most likely would not have achieved her full potential.
Despite being an outstanding student, speaking at least three languages, and having the drive to become a physician, the obstacles in her way were great. Women were not being admitted into traditional medical schools and even pursuing an undergraduate degree for a person of color was difficult. Susan was able to attend a traditionally black college, Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, before being admitted to the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Once accepted, it seemed the financial barrier might stop her from taking her seat, but she rallied with the support of the women around her, who ensured a scholarship for the young woman to attend her professional courses.
Those close to her also knew she was suffering from an unknown ailment of her own, later speculated to be Leukemia, she would see long periods of convalescent leave from school and work when her illness flared, but she persisted, and her own ill health may have helped motivate her to continue her endeavors.
By her own accounts, she relayed how seeing Omaha people disregarded by white western doctors in her youth influenced her. After witnessing what she thought was a preventable death of an Omaha elder, she vowed she would do everything in her power to prevent this from happening under her watch.
True to herself, Susan worked diligently to earn her education and bring her knowledge back to her tribe so they could benefit and she could care for them. She worked long days and took arduous journeys to reach those who needed her most, and she served in more than one way. Of course, she provided medical treatment, preventative care, and health education, but she also served as a translator, business advisor, advocate, and representative for her people.
Dr. Susan, as she’s affectionately called, never stopped fighting to bridge the gaps and grow the relationships within her tribe, the UpStream People, and others. Fighting against the tide was something she did well, and women of all backgrounds owe her a debt of gratitude for breaking down barriers their gender faced. For this “Warrior of the People,” building the hospital was a life-long dream to bring care to the Omaha within their reach and on their land.
Just as the hospital was finally underway, Susan’s health took a decided turn for the worse. The grand opening was reportedly delayed until she was well enough to attend the dedication just two years before her death in 1915 at the young age of 50. While her life was much too short, her impact was great, and her legacy remains one that should inspire all.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte was a Native American heroine, an example of the love rural people have for their way of life and homelands. Her accomplishments would have been remarkable against any backdrop, but it was her love of Nebraska, her people, their way of life, and her desire to serve that make the public servants of USDA Rural Development so proud to honor her this Women’s History Month; Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, a woman still providing healing and hope for all.
Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities, create jobs, and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans in rural areas. For more information, and to apply for grants like the Rural Business Development Grants used to renovate the Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte Center visit www.rd.usda.gov/ne.