Women Wednesday – Native American Innovators

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte
Our first innovator, Susan La Flesche Picotte, was born in 1865 on the Omaha Indian Reservation in Northeast Nebraska. Her interest in the medical field was ignited from a young age as she witnessed the poor living and health conditions of those in her community. Susan knew she had to discover a way to help. In 1886, she attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania after receiving a scholarship from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs—at the time, Susan was the first person to receive federal aid for professional education. Three years later, she graduated at the top of her class, and after completing a one-year internship, she became the first Native American physician in the United States.

Susan immediately took her education back home, where she advocated for cleanliness and air ventilation to prevent the spread of disease. She was paid only $500 a year as the reservation doctor, and many times, she was forced to pay for her own supplies or create new ways to care for her community members. However, Susan diligently persevered in an effort to care for as many patients as possible.

In 1894, she married Henry Picotte, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota, and moved to Bancroft, Nebraska. There she raised two children and opened her own private practice, despite the criticism she received for being a working mother. Throughout the rest of her life, Susan championed many causes that benefited Native Americans—from advocating for modern hygiene and disease prevention standards to securing land rights for her people to challenging a woman’s role in the family.

 

Louise Erdrich 
Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Minnesota, Louise Erdrich was the first of seven children. Her mother was a Chippewa Indian (half Ojibwe and half French), and her grandfather served as tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Louise’s love of writing started young when her father paid her a nickel for every creative story she wrote.

In 1972, Louise was part of the first class of women admitted to Dartmouth College, where she earned a degree in English. There she met Michael Dorris, an anthropologist, writer, and director of the college’s Native American Studies program. Through this program, Louise deepened her interest in her own culture and began writing innovative literary work that featured Native American characters and settings. Years later, Louise and Michael began to collaborate on short stories, many of which received national accolades.

Louise became one of the most influential writers of the second wave of the Native American Renaissance. Her novel The Plague of Doves was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009, and in 2012 she was honored with the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. Today this innovator is still writing and has opened her own independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which focuses on Native American literature and the community.

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