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In Celebration of National Nursing Week: The First Women of Healing

In 1982 President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation on March 25, proclaiming a “National Recognition Day for Nurses.” The ANA Board of Directors expanded the recognition of nurses in 1991, to a week-long celebration, declaring May 6–12, as National Nurses Week in conjunction with “credited” founder of nursing Florence Nightingale’s birthday; two years later, National Nurses Week was officially designated as a permanent observation in all subsequent years.

Before Florence Nightingale, however, American Indian women collected essential herbs, roots, barks and berries; making teas, poultices and singing healing songs of her foremothers— medicinal lore passed down from grandmother, to mother to daughter for thousands of years before white men set foot on Native soil; and would later claim this knowledge as their own. American Indian women have been denied the gratitude from the lessons that unite ancient wisdom with today’s healing arts with little recognition as the First women of healing.

Taken from the article "100 Amazing Indian Discoveries," in American Indian Magazine of the National Museum of the American Indian, fall 2004, before Western science we learn, American Indians practiced asepsis (sterile technique) to clean wounds and incisions with water they had sterilized by boiling; keeping wounds clean and bacteria free. About 1000 B.C. Native healers used anesthetics from medicinal plants, including coca, peyote, witch hazel and dutura to ease aches and pains. They also used anesthetics to help the patient lose consciousness before surgery. The Aztec physicians understood the structure and function of the human body (anatomical knowledge), including the circulatory system long before European doctor’s possessed this knowledge, and North American Indian healers administered medicine beneath the skin with hypodermic syringes made from hollow bird bones and small animal bladders. Europeans did not start using hypodermic syringes until 1853.

The late Mohegan Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon asserts, “The Indian pharmacists were not all “medicine men,” as might be supposed from that current phrase (these seem to act more as psychiatrists, exorcists, and hypnotists). More likely, they were knowledgeable elderly women.” Gladys was the third of seven children born to Mohegan parents in Uncasville, Connecticut. In childhood, she learned traditional practices, beliefs, and lore from nanus or respected elder women from her tribe. At 18 she attended the University of Pennsylvania to study anthropology, where she studied and worked with noted anthropologist, Frank G. Speck. She also worked to preserve and revive Mohegan tribal customs and language. She became a council member and elected Tribal Medicine Woman, publishing several books about traditional herbal medicine. Her best-known work, A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practices and Folk Beliefs, was published in 1942 and reprinted in 1972 and 1995 as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians. Later she received honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Connecticut (1987) and Yale University (1994); and in 1994, she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, RN (1903-1981), who is one of the thousands of nurses who has dedicated herself to profession of nursing. On July 1, she became the first American Indian nurse to be inducted into the American Nursing Association’s prestigious Hall of Fame. Born on the Crow Agency reservation in Montana, Susie was the first American Indian registered nurse in the U.S., as well as an activist who fought tirelessly to achieve better health care for Indian people. After graduating from Boston City Hospital School of Nursing in 1923, she returned to Crow Agency to work in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Hospital. There she witnessed forced sterilization of Crow women without their consent—mobilized her into a lifelong fight to end abuses in the Indian health care system.

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From 1930 to 1960, she traveled to reservations throughout the country. One of Yellowtail’s assessments revealed that seriously ill Navajo children were literally dying on the backs of their mothers, who often had to walk 20 miles or more to reach the nearest hospital. She joined state health advisory boards and quickly became well known among national health care policy-makers to fight these inequities.

Yellowtail was appointed to President Nixon’s Council on Indian Health, Education and Welfare, and to the federal Indian Health Advisory Committee in 1970. These appointments gave her a national platform advocating for the health needs of her people. She also founded the first professional association for Native American nurses and was instrumental in winning tribal and government funding to help Indians enter the nursing profession. In 1962, Yellowtail received the President’s Award for Outstanding Nursing Health Care.

On this day, I would also like to honor my sister Lorraine (E. Pequot-Nottoway), who is a registered nurse and a practitioner of Healing Touch, including medicinal teas and herbs as part of her practice. There are so many other incredible women who have moved the profession of healing forward for the next generation of Indian nurses and are deserving of acknowledgement. Help celebrate nursing week by recognizing a nurse of your acquaintance in the response column below; creating ICTMN first American Indian Nurse Page of Fame.

Even though Nurses Week ended yesterday, it is not too late to celebrate women of healing in your life.

Julianne Jennings, E. Pequot-Nottoway, is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University.