Tag Archives: Alice Fletcher

Preserving the Legacy of Dr. Susan La Flesche

December 27, 2018 by
Photography by Patrick Mainelli and contributed by Nebraska Historical Society

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.   

Dr. Susan La Flesche

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.

Glenna Slater and Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Stewardship

August 25, 2016 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When a language dies, its culture suffers a tragic loss. The indigenous Omaha people—the Umoⁿhoⁿ—are thus in a precarious position. Although there are about 6,000 living members of the tribe, its language is in danger of passing into history.  According to Glenna Slater, member of the Omaha Tribe, fewer than 12 tribal members are considered fluent in the language—and many who know the language are unable to teach it.

Slater is one of those rare fluent speakers alive today.

“We’re right here at the edge,” she says. “We lost one teacher in January.”

The Umoⁿhoⁿ settled the Great Plains during the 17th century before losing much of their territory to the U.S. government in the early 1800s, including where the city of Omaha sits today. The Omaha Reservation was established in 1854 and is seated in Macy, Nebraska.

Slater, now in her 70s, grew up on the reservation speaking Omaha as her first language, though she was never taught formally. She did not speak English until she began attending school. Slater eventually attended the University of Nebraska and began a lifelong career in social work, but the compulsion to educate runs through her bloodline. Her mother taught on the reservation as well. “I could never walk in her footsteps,” says the ever-humble Slater.

GlennaSlaterThese days, she gives a weekly course at the UNO Community Engagement Center, teaching the Omaha language to learners young and old. She began teaching around 15 years ago, helping her older sister Winona (now in her 90s) give lessons on
the reservation.

Many of Slater’s students are older—in their 40s and 50s—but a new batch of younger people have also taken up the mantle. Some of her students are as young as 10 years old. They practice with primers on vocabulary and grammar. They read narratives and traditional stories. “The students want to learn everything. When young ones want to go home and ask their parents, their parents are unable to help, because they were never taught formally or they aren’t fluent.”

Slater tells her students to keep their handouts and everything they acquire, for they may be called upon in the future to pass on the language. Her older students are already teaching their own grandkids, she says.

In tandem with classes at UNO, Slater is also involved in Umoⁿhoⁿ language instruction at Nebraska Indian Community College (NICC) in Macy. Established in 1973, NICC is an accredited land-grant institution providing two-year degrees to residents of the Omaha and Isanti (Santee Sioux) reservations.  She has also taught in South Sioux City, and at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

Slater speaks of the language with great respect and deference. “There would be something missing if I didn’t know the language,” she says, regarding her relationship with the Omaha Tribe and her ancestors.

“The language is very sacred: if you question the rules and reasoning behind it, you’ll be told it comes from up there,” Slater says, pointing to the sky. “And you won’t get more of an answer than that.” Slater’s respect for the language and Omaha tradition is mirrored in the class, too: “You can only tell the legends during the winter months. If you don’t respect this, strange things will happen.”

Preserving the language has been a difficult process. In addition to the generational challenges, a dictionary was completed only in the last decade, owing much to the contributions of Professor Mark Awakuni Swetland of UNL, who passed in 2015 yet remains a controversial figure among tribal leaders (due to concerns that a non-Omaha person might be profiting from the Omaha language).

Written documentation of the language is limited, and much of the knowledge is still fragmented across the recollections of surviving fluent speakers. Slater herself must defer to the wisdom of her siblings and peers in some cases. “You might know the language,” she says, “but you don’t know it all.”

Her goal with the classes is to continue enthusiasm for the language, and to ensure its survival for generations to come. “I just hope it can go on after me,” Slater remarks, “and I would be happy if I can get even two or three students to become conversational in it.”

Despite the challenges ahead, Slater remains optimistic. Several language revitalization initiatives are underway with the collaborative involvement of elders residing throughout the state. That’s in addition to lessons taught in Head Start, primary and secondary schools, community colleges, and in homes across Macy.

Slater hopes her teaching will expose more people to Omaha culture. “This has been the most fulfilling thing for me,” she says. “When students leave, they want to be hugged. Life is so hard, they need this extra something. And I learn from them, too.”


BillLynnA Language Family: William Lynn

The mission statement of the Dhegiha Preservation Society states: “the Osage, Omaha, Quapaw, Kaw, Ponca, and Northern Ponca peoples are bound to one another through a shared history, ancient social, political, and cultural relationships, and a common language, the latter of which is in jeopardy of extinction.”

Once a year, Dhegiha speakers and educators gather for a language conference. The sixth annual Dhegiha Language Conference took place in Omaha at UNO’s Community Engagement Center on July 21 and 22.

“Our main goal is to create fluent Dhegiha speakers,” says William Lynn, chairman of the Dhegiha Preservation Society and an enrolled member of the Osage Nation.

The Omaha language is an offshoot of the Dhegiha-speaking branch of the Proto-Siouan language family. In comparison to European languages, it’s a bit like Danish, an offshoot of Scandinavian (North Germanic), which is a branch of the Proto-Germanic language family. The Ponca-Omaha languages are mutually intelligible, and linguists generally group them together.

“It was great that the Ponca and Omaha hosted this year,” says Lynn (Osage). “We’ve had it in Oklahoma for five years. Last year, the Omaha sent a couple of vans down to Oklahoma with 12
fluent speakers.”

VidaStablerOn the Homeland: Vida Stabler

Umoⁿhoⁿ language documentation dates to James Owen Dorsey, Alice Fletcher, and Francis La Flesche (the first Omaha-Ponca anthropologist). “But many others have documented our language since then,” says Vida Stabler, Title VII Indian Education Director of Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools.

The Omaha Reservation schools currently employ two full-time and two part-time Umoⁿhoⁿ language instructors to teach across roughly 20 K-12 classrooms each week. “We do not have enough teachers to meet demand on the reservation,” says Stabler, who has taught at the schools for 18 years. She recently helped to organize a new teaching group, ToUL (Teachers of Umoⁿhoⁿ Language), and says developing immersion programs will be crucial to language revitalization.

Three years ago, the Omaha Public Schools and the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center produced a language app called “Omaha Basic.” Over the past decade, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools and UNL partnered to complete the first Omaha language textbook (to be released in 2018). The projects relied on crucial contributions by the late Marcella Woodhull Cayou, Donna Morris Parker, and Susan Fremont. In 2017, Umoⁿhoⁿ Nation Public Schools is partnering with the Language Conservancy to produce an Umoⁿhoⁿ textbook for instructors and students.

AubreyStreitKrugAn Outsider’s View: Aubrey Streit Krug

Aubrey Streit Krug began studying the Omaha language as part of her ongoing Ph.D. in English at UNL. Her adviser suggested that she learn a Native American language, so she started taking classes with the late Mark Awakuni-Swetland, Ph.D., an anthropology professor of Euro-American descent (who had been adopted by Omaha elders).

Streit Krug says she was a minority in the class as a non-Native person. After Awakuni-Swetland’s passing in 2015, she remained among the 10-15 people working on a collaborative textbook. The textbook’s copyright is owned by the Umoⁿhoⁿ Language Cultural Center and Umoⁿhoⁿ Nations Public Schools. The upcoming textbook and the Omaha-Ponca Digital Dictionary are the legacy of her mentor’s lifework.

“Studying Umoⁿhoⁿ is important because this is the land where we are situated. My ancestors were German immigrants in the late-19th century, and I grew up in rural Kansas,” she says, noting that the Omaha language helped her to understand the root meaning of the Waconda Lake near her hometown (a Siouan word for “holy” or “sacred”). “What I knew of the Great Plains was the history of Euro-American settlement. But there is this beautiful, ongoing tradition of Native communities.”

Read also Marisa Miakonda Cumming’s essay, “Speaking to the Future, Honoring the Past” from the same issue, and Charles Trimble’s essay, “A Linguistic Sea Change Across Indian Country.”

This article was printed in the September/October 2016 edition of Omaha Magazine. Story on Glenna Slater by James Vnuk. Sidebars by Doug Meigs. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Visit omahaponca.unl.edu for more information.