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The first Indian Army nurses

In 1898, the United States waged war against Spain. Hostilities lasted only four months with most of the fighting occurring in Cuba and the Philippines, both Spanish colonial possessions.

It has been noted that several factors contributed to the U.S. government's decision to declare war on Spain, including Cuba's struggle for independence, Americans' belief in Manifest Destiny and the sinking of the U.S. Navy warship, the Maine, in Manila Bay.

American Indian men served in this brief conflict both in Cuba and the Philippines. What most people do not know is American Indian women also served in the military during the Spanish American War.

The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) was the main agency for contracting nurses to serve both in military camps in the United States, Cuba and the Philippines. In the "Roster of Women Nurses Enlisted for Spanish American War by the DAR Hospital Corps," the names of the first documented American Indian Army nurses can be found. Four Lakota nuns from the Congregation of American Sisters from Fort Pierre, S.D., are listed: Susan Bordeaux (the Rev. Mother M. Anthony), Ella Clark (the Rev. Sister M. Gertrude), Anna B. Pleets (the Rev. Mother M. Bridget) and Josephine Two Bears (the Rev. Sister M. Joseph).

These four nuns were part of a tiny order that worked at Fort Berthold, N.D., under the leadership of the Rev. Francis Craft, a colorful if not eccentric priest, who was said to be of Mohawk heritage.

Initially, teaching was the focus of their service - until 1895 when the government schools filled this need. Father Craft then had the nuns turn their energies toward caring for the sick. They did not receive any formal training for nursing, but rather were taught by Father Craft and learned on the job by caring for the sick in homes and hospitals.

This small order never had more than 12 sisters. With money problems, accusations of improprieties and Father Craft's increasingly irrational behavior, some of the Indian sisters left (or escaped as some have reported) and the order crumbled.

After stories of abuse by Father Craft were reported by two sisters, he was forbidden to live or work on the reservations. In 1898, with four sisters still under his influence, he renounced his affiliation with the Catholic Church. When the war broke out Father Craft found a purpose for the four remaining nuns. He contacted the War Department and offered their services as nurses. He would accompany them as a hospital steward.

With applications accepted, the sisters' first assignment was Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Fla., then to Camp Onward, Savannah, Ga. In December 1898, they sailed to Camp Columbia in Havana, Cuba, where they lived in tents and were paid $30 a month.

One poignant story has Mother Bridget writing the addresses of dying soldiers on her apron. After their deaths she would write their families. In her later years, after she lost her sight, she would have her niece unwrap the aprons and read the names to which she would comment, "Oh yes, he was a wonderful boy."

The sisters were awarded the "Cross of the Order of Spanish American War Nurses" and a Joint Resolution (H.J. Res. 20, 56th Congress) was introduced by Congressman John Fitzgerald of Massachusetts, "Tendering the thanks of Congress ... for ministering to the wants of soldiers in the Spanish America war ... " On Feb. 1, 1899, they were honorably discharged but stayed on in Cuba to work in an orphanage.

On Oct. 15, 1899, Mother Anthony died of pneumonia. She was given a military funeral by the 1st Infantry and the 7th Cavalry and buried in the military cemetery at Camp Egbert. Father Craft tried to get the burial corps to take her body with the other soldiers to Arlington Cemetery, but he could not get permission and, as far as is known, her remains are still interred in Grave 22, City Cemetery, Pinar Del Rio, Cuba. Susan Bordeaux has been reported to be the granddaughter of Chief Spotted Tail and the grandniece of Chief Red Cloud.

Ellen Clark left Cuba and returned to the Cheyenne River Agency where she married Joe Hodgkiss. Her last years were spent in the Old Soldiers Home in Hot Springs, S.D.

Anna Pleets left Cuba with Sister Clark. She would later marry Joe Dubray and work as a midwife at Standing Rock. Her name can be found in the DAR's roster of Spanish American War Nurses "Roll of the Dead." Her passing is listed as March 13, 1948. She was given a military funeral and buried at St. Peter's Cemetery in Fort Yates, N.D.

Josephine Two Bears stayed to run the Cuban orphanage until 1901 when she returned to the United States with Father Craft. In 1903 she married Joachim Hairychin but died during childbirth in 1909. It has been reported that Josephine was the daughter of Chief Two Bears of Standing Rock.

These four women were the first documented American Indian Army nurses. Their story has been placed in the Army Nurse Corps History Archives and with the Women in Military Service Memorial.

If anyone has additional information about these women, please contact me. I am still trying to find their specific tribal affiliation and confirm the relationship of Susan Bordeaux to Chiefs Spotted Tail and Red Cloud and Josephine Two Bears to Chief Two Bears.

My mailing address is Brenda Finnicum, 395 Sheldon Road, Freeville, NY 13068.