‘A Warrior of the People’: First American Indian Doctor Was a Woman
Tanya H. Lee
Joe Starita’s third book, “A Warrior of the People,” is the masterful depiction of an American Indian woman and the times and cultures she negotiated so brilliantly to bring a new system of medical care to her people. Susan La Flesche overcame racism, gender discrimination, poor health and a rapidly changing political and social environment to become the first Western-trained American Indian doctor.
She graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania as valedictorian of her class in 1889 and returned to the Omaha Reservation to serve her tribe until bone cancer claimed her at age 50. Ironically, the Great Plains area in which Susan worked is the very same location where today’s Indian Health Service hospitals are so clearly failing their patients.
Why did you choose to write this particular book?
The American West is this mythic place that has almost exclusively been defined through the eyes of men. We know about the American West because of Custer and Crazy Horse, George Crook and Geronimo, Red Cloud and Cochise. Susan’s story gave me the opportunity to [show] the American West through the eyes of not only a woman, but an American Indian woman.
Susan gives the reader the opportunity to see the great collision between the forces of Manifest Destiny and Native American culture not through warfare, not through reservation life, but through the eyes of a woman who somehow found a way to thread this very complex bi-cultural needle and learn how to absorb white influence and white ways without ever losing her Native soul.
Susan left a lot of written documentation about her life, but where did the information about her father’s approach to American Indian-European relationships come from?
There’s an entire repository of primary source documents involving the La Flesche family at the Nebraska State Historical Society. This was a very educated family and I would argue there has really been no family quite like the La Flesches before or since. They left behind lots of documents written by Joseph La Flesche’s children, including Francis La Flesche, the first American Indian ethnographer.
Historical context is very critical to understanding this story. You have to place this woman within the context of her own family and then place that family within the context of what was happening in the American West, on the reservation, in the last half of the 19th century. You cannot understand Susan unless you understand her father and you cannot understand him unless you understand what was happening as the federal government was zealously trying to strip Native Americans of their identity.
This theme of identity is very critical to this story. Who gets to decide how you define yourself? Who gets to define who you are? And without a culture, who are any of us?
So when an external foreign power blows up your culture, takes away your language, your music and your dress, your songs, then who are you? And how do you fight to retain your cultural identity when all of these external forces are trying to strip you of that identity? That’s the struggle that Joseph La Flesche worked on. And it was the struggle that was inherited by his youngest daughter, the doctor.
Does the hospital that Susan built still exist?
The original building exists. It’s fallen into disrepair because the Omaha Reservation is in Thurston County, one of the 93 counties that make up the state of Nebraska, and it is the poorest of the 93 counties.
I have a colleague who has done a documentary, a beautiful, gorgeous wonderful documentary on Susan La Flesche, called “Medicine Woman,” that is going to air on national PBS stations on November 1, just before the book is set to be released by St. Martin’s Press. We’re hoping that the combination of the two can elevate Susan’s profile and generate some interest in realizing how important this hospital is and doing something to enhance its structural integrity.
You are donating all of the proceeds from this book to your scholarship fund. Could you talk a little about that?
Three years ago, I created a scholarship fund that is specifically devoted to sending Native American high school graduates to the next level, wherever that may be—a four-year university, a community college, an auto body repair shop, beauty school, it doesn’t matter. It’s a scholarship designed to help three or four students each year to continue their education in a vein that will lead to a job, a job that will lead to a paycheck, a paycheck that will support a family, a family that will be stakeholders in the community they live in.
To contribute to Starita’s tax-exempt scholarship fund for Native American high school graduates go to www.nebcommfound.org/fund/standing-bear. Contributions can also be mailed to: Chief Standing Bear Journey for Justice Scholarship Fund; Nebraska Community Foundation; PO Box 83107; Lincoln, NE 68501-3107.