Preserving the Legacy of Dr. Susan La Flesche
Dec 27, 2018 01:47PM
By Patrick Mainelli
As it was in the days of the unbound prairie, so it remains in the age of endless corn: the pleasures of place are given to those with a keen eye for the subtle and overlooked.
This fact of Nebraska life is especially true on the Omaha Indian Reservation, 80 miles north of the city named after the tribe.
There, in the village of Walthill (population 780), sits a building that quietly embodies a uniquely Omaha story. It has persevered for over a century with little fanfare.
The reservation’s old hospital, known for years simply as “the old white building,” opened its doors in 1913. The building—one-and-a-half stories built in the American Craftsman tradition—once contained an operating studio, two general wards, a maternity ward, kitchen, office, and five private rooms on the top level.
Today, the weather-worn and increasingly dilapidated 105-year-old structure maintains a tangible link to the remarkable life of the country’s first Native American physician—Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. While some paint may be peeling, and every floorboard creaks, the old hospital offers testament to La Flesche’s dedication to the wellbeing of her people.
Born in a teepee in 1865, (just a few months after a treaty ratified the boundaries of the Omaha Reservation) La Flesche would go on to find success in settings far removed from her Nebraska roots. In 1889, La Flesche graduated as valedictorian from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, a remarkable feat at any time, but especially so in an era when women were not even admitted to most of the county’s medical schools, and Native peoples were still actively being pushed into ever-diminishing corners—geographically, politically, culturally—of American life.
With high-profile academic credentials and friendships with heavyweights in the East Coast intellectual scene (such as anthropologist Alice Fletcher), La Flesche could have chosen to make a life in any one of the burgeoning metropolises of the late 19th century.
Instead, she came home.
For years, her medical practice consisted primarily of traveling the open landscape of northeast Nebraska by horse and buggy, providing care to both Native and Euro-American communities across a 450-square-mile area. La Flesche established the original hospital on the reservation in her sister Marguerite’s garage in Walthill, performing operations and fighting the persistent scourge of the day, tuberculosis.
After returning to Nebraska, she had, in short order, met, married, and buried a French-Sioux man named Henry Picotte. After her husband’s death, La Flesche diligently continued her medical work while raising two sons and funds to build a proper hospital.
Joe Starita, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is the author of A Warrior of the People: How Susan La Flesche Overcame Racial and Gender Inequality to Become America’s First Indian Doctor (published in 2016). Starita explains that the development of a hospital on the reservation was La Flesche’s long-held dream, and it was her unyielding work and fundraising that brought it to fruition. “She single-handedly raised all of the money to build her dream hospital in the middle of a remote reservation—the first in American history to have been built without a single tax dollar. That is a remarkable achievement—then or now, or at any time in U.S. history.”
Meg Johnson, great-grandniece of Susan La Flesche, remembers that the legacy of her ancestor’s work has “always been a part of my family’s narrative. As a young child, I would hear my mother, aunt, and grandmother speak of Dr. Susan, and her older sisters, Susette “Bright Eyes,” and Marguerite, my great-grandmother. I knew of their lives and a bit about their contributions to the world as Native women, but didn’t understand or appreciate the context of the times in which they lived…the absolute injustices experienced by Native people, as well as the efforts to destroy culture, values, and existence.”
Since the mid-1980s, a small group of Walthill residents has worked to maintain the old hospital and establish a monument to the memory of La Flesche. While the Susan La Flesche Picotte Memorial Center has curated an impressive collection of medical artifacts and informative material, the building is now in need of serious repairs. Rain has eaten through the roof in a few places, and water damage has marred the walls and floors of multiple rooms.
Thankfully, the last two years have seen renewed enthusiasm for the unique history of the hospital. While the site was registered as a National Historic Landmark in 1993 and was recognized as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2018 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, if its storied history is to be maintained into the future, a serious investment of resources is still needed.
Judi gaiashkibos (who does not capitalize her last name), the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, has been involved with the restoration project since fall 2017. She explains, “We hope that Dr. Susan’s hospital, when it is reopened, will be a source of hope and pride in the community. That it will lift spirits. We want people to stop and say there is something of value here.”
The project gained much-needed momentum from a Nebraska Public Television documentary on La Flesche (Medicine Woman, which first aired in 2016), a $100,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2018, and the expressed support of Nebraska’s first lady, Susanne Shore. Grant funds have gone toward conducting a full assessment of the building’s structural needs and gathering community input on future use.
“We’re trying to let the spirit of Dr. Susan inspire us to keep us on the right road,” gaiashkibos says, explaining the planning process. Community outreach efforts have included numerous town hall meetings, conversations with tribal elders, and online surveys. “We’re casting as wide a net as possible to gather the input of anyone who feels invested in Dr. Susan and this community.”
At the moment, tentative plans for the restoration include an expanded museum on the hospital’s main floor. The remainder of the building will be suited to meet the reservation’s needs, with a likely focus on community and individual health. Some ideas currently floated include a language lab (working to help preserve the Omaha language), a resource office for new and expecting mothers, and legal support services for victims of domestic violence.
Scott Shafer, administrative assistant to the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, explains that the success of the National Willa Cather Center in Red Cloud, Nebraska, has inspired the hospital restoration efforts to think on both a local and national scale: “We want it to be a place of daily use, but also to be a place where people can talk about contemporary issues in society and the community. We want to have a broader footprint, certainly impacting northeast Nebraska but also being a part of the conversation on public health and native sovereignty on the national level.”
Although she worked tirelessly for the health of so many, La Flesche suffered from various illnesses for much of her life. Chronic pain followed her through college and career, and a fall from a horse left her with multiple internal injuries. In her final years, the pain of bone cancer became a constant drag on La Flesche, even as construction on her hospital was being finalized.
She died in September 1915, less than three years after the Walthill hospital opened.
Starita remarks: “What Susan La Flesche has to teach us is the transformative power of kindness. Despite a life filled with a great deal of illness, pain, and tragedy, Susan never let it get her down. She never gave into it. She always saw the bigger purpose. She understood that life is not about trying to avoid pain and suffering because that was impossible. Instead, she believed that life was about finding a purpose and then spending the rest of your life devoted to that purpose—no matter how many obstacles, disappointments, and heartbreaks are put in the way.”
Today, Walthill’s “old white building” amounts to much more than the sum of its aging parts. While restoration efforts will certainly attend to the holes in the roof and the crumbling plaster, it’s the less-material details of history that are at the heart of this preservation project.
“We can learn so much from Dr. Susan,” Johnson says. “She led an incredible life of service; she knew early on her passion for healing and public health and had the courage to recognize it and take this incredible leap to unknown worlds to pursue it. She realized what she was put here to do, and she did it.”
Visit drsusancenter.org to learn more about the Walthill hospital restoration project, complete a survey on potential uses of the building, and contribute to the restoration campaign.
This article was printed in the January/February 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.