Tag Archives: Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs

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.

All Hail Hal France

April 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1970, when Hal France began his freshman year at the University of Vermont as a football player, the little light that had been flickering above his head of black curls suddenly clicked on in all its megawatt splendor. The epiphany changed the course of his life.

“In just a matter of months, I got completely driven into music and became a different kind of person,” says France, who started piano lessons when he was a boy, in his native northern New Jersey. “I was a jock who went from not playing the piano to practicing intensely every day.”

France never veered from the path he chose all those years ago, but he did broaden it considerably. The young man who became a virtuoso pianist branched out into opera, transforming himself into one of the most sought-after conductors in this country and throughout Europe.

Omahans know him as the artistic director of Opera Omaha from 1995-2005. His responsibilities covered every aspect of a production, from the music to the scenery and costumes. A permanent resident of Omaha since 2003 (after spending eight years flying into Omaha several times a year), France’s many other roles include performer, teacher, coach, executive director of KANEKO, humanitarian, volunteer, mentor, friend, and one of Omaha’s most tireless advocates for all the arts, not just opera.


“It’s really important that live music and the classics be continued,” says France, 63. “Whether you like classical music or not, live gatherings of human beings, face to face, is not replaceable.

Sipping black coffee in lieu of his usual drink preference, hot tea, France reflects on his life’s improbable U-turn. “I played football and basketball through high school and all my friends were athletes.” But didn’t the cultural mecca across the river from Jersey draw him? “Yeah, except I was a Yankees fan and went to their games from a young age. The Yankees, Jets, and Mets—that was my culture,” he says with a dimpled grin.

France praises his late parents, both musicians, for patiently allowing him to find his own level. Once he decided on a “purposeful life” in music, he transferred to Northwestern University for a degree in piano performance. His next stop: the prestigious Juilliard Opera Center, followed by a degree in conducting from the Cincinnati Conservatory.

Why opera? The answer may lie in his heritage. “I’m Italian on both sides, and my grandparents spoke Italian,” he says, indicating the family name had been shortened along the way. Music of all kinds, including opera, filled the house daily.

France started out in the orchestra pit as a rehearsal pianist for a small opera company in Colorado and fell in love with “all the excitement and the energy of that collaboration.” He joined other companies and moved from the pit to the podium in a short time, working his way up the conductor ladder with zeal and an unbridled passion “to bring music to life.” He would soon bring life to the music in Omaha.

“I first came to Omaha in the mid-’80s as a guest conductor at the opera,” he recalls in his low, well-modulated voice. At the time, France was paying his dues at the Houston Grand Opera under the tutelage of John DeMain, who functioned simultaneously as Opera Omaha’s music director. “One year John couldn’t come up here, so he sent me. That marked the beginning of my freelance conducting career, setting off on my own.”

Over the next 10 years, the charismatic France brought an insightful, entertaining, and masterful command to each orchestral or operatic production, from Santa Fe to Stockholm, London to St. Louis. But he never forgot Omaha’s level of talent, community involvement, and impressive philanthropy. In 1995, he readily accepted a position with Opera Omaha and built upon its growing national reputation for high artistic quality. Says attorney David Gardels, a longtime opera board member, “Hal instituted long practice and rehearsal sessions. It was very professional. The chorus people loved him.”

And France loves singers, whom he considers smart as well as skilled. More importantly, he respects them. The admiration flows both ways. “There is no one who believes in a person more, or who has pushed me harder as a musician,” says Opera Omaha soprano Tara Cowherd. “He will memorize an entire opera and sing every note. He’s amazingly talented and humble.”

Strands of gray now weave through his black curls, but France still racks up frequent flyer miles. His coming opera engagements include a production with the Hawaii Opera Theater and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He’s also teaming with the Omaha Conservatory to present a series of community-based programs about music, while continuing his mentorship of young singers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Divorced from Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair, France enjoys being in a committed relationship with Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “Being connected to her life, which is so different from mine, is a real blessing,” France says. “I love music, but one becomes a better musician as one becomes more connected.” With no children of his own, he dotes on his nieces and nephews, hoping a light will some day lead them to a life of fulfillment.

Visit operaomaha.org for more information.


The Story of Standing Bear

October 25, 2014 by
Photography by Sara Lemke

When 12-year-old Claudia Archer received a cell phone call from her mother informing her that she had won an essay contest, her reaction was more bewilderment than triumph.

“I’m like, ‘What essay is this?’” she says. School was already out for the year and the Brownell-Talbot middle-schooler had written a lot of essays in her sixth-grade writer’s workshop class.

“My writing teacher, Mr. G.—Mr. Goetschkes—had us write an essay each week. And every now and again he threw in an essay contest, and one of them was the Standing Bear essay.”

Months had passed since the assignment, but Archer finally recognized her work: “I realized I wrote it and that I won! I was really excited, but it was a shocker.”

The contest was sponsored by the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs and McDonald’s with the objective of generating awareness, especially among youth, of the many accomplishments of Ponca Chief Standing Bear. By contest guidelines for the middle school category, Archer was limited to 200 words and her essay had to demonstrate original thinking and her own opinion. Her final entry was, as she puts it, “short and sweet,” and Robert Goetschkes, her writer’s workshop teacher, agrees.

“The Standing Bear essay was one of those in-class, full-on writing process activities, so she had a lot of time to work on it and revise it, get feedback from some of her classmates, that sort of thing,”
he explains.

Goetschkes, who is with Brownell-Talbot’s English department, says he actively seeks multiple writing competition opportunities for his students every year, and hopes that someday a master database will exist to increase participation.

“I have found that in all of these writing contests I’ve done that I get the same response: ‘I wish more teachers did this’. What I say is, ‘I wish more teachers knew about it’,” he says. “I think if even one student wins every year, it has an impact. I tell the kids that even if you don’t win you are operating at your best when you are competing.”

The four Chief Standing Bear essay contest winners (one in each age category: elementary school, middle school, high school, and college) received a $25 McDonald’s Arch Card and Kindle e-Reader, plus saw their essays appear on tray liners in McDonald’s restaurants throughout the state this summer. Archer and her fellow honorees attended a May reception at the Governor’s Mansion hosted by first lady Sally Ganem and were allowed to bring two guests; Archer chose her parents, Ed and Nuria.

“They’re proud of me and they were really excited for me,” she says.

“She’s a very hard worker, she dedicates a lot of time and is very patient,” Nuria Archer says. “And she has the biggest heart you’ve ever seen. Everybody tells me she’s way beyond her years.”

Claudia’s Essay:

“There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled.” — Chief Standing Bear

Chief Standing Bear was a great individual. He was born in 1829 and died in 1908. He became a great leader for the Ponca tribe. Sadly he went through the terrible death of his son, due to harsh weather and his burial became an adventure.

Ensuring his burial was in his homeland was important to him. In January 1879, Standing Bear and his followers abandoned the Indian Territory to accomplish it. On the way to their ancestral homeland, Standing Bear and his followers got captured and taken to Fort Omaha, Nebraska.

In the spring of 1879, a journalist interviewed him and published a story that grasped many of the public’s attention. Because of this, many lawyers tried to prevent Standing Bear from going back to Indian Territory.

It is said the story explained why the tribe was divided. The majority of the Southern Ponca went to the Indian Territory, but Chief Standing Bear and his followers returned to Nebraska and became the Northern Ponca. 88 years after his death, a tall bronze statute reminds us of this leader today.