I came across the biography of “America’s first Indian doctor” a couple of months. My blog post about Dr. Susan La Flesche is here. The managed to obtain a review copy of the book. After reading it, I wrote the below review.
This book tells the story of Dr. Susan La Flesche who became the first Native American woman doctor in the U.S. A daughter of the Omaha tribe of Nebraska, she came of age in a time of great change—almost an existential crisis—for her people.
Her father, Joseph La Flesche, was the last chief of the tribe and he had reluctantly come to the conclusion that if his tribe was to survive the hordes of American settlers who were headed their way, they would need to adapt and modernize.
His anguish is one that will be familiar to many people even today. How do we hold on to our traditions and our culture while accepting the challenge to modernize? Is not changing an option? Must accepting change mean giving up all that is familiar and sacred? Will the changes have any unexpected consequences? What will happen to us if we are unable to handle these changes?
As a visionary and as a courageous leader, Joseph LaFlesche set the ball rolling. He sent his children—daughters included—a thousand miles away from home in order to get educated. It fell to those children, particularly his youngest daughter Susan, to execute his vision. They ended up having to do a lot more than that. They had to manage the fallout of the encounter with modernity, particularly situations for which there was no traditional knowledge or experience—everything from alcoholism and threatened land rights to liaising with the government in far-off Washington, DC in order to secure funding for Indian schools and hospitals and persevering for tribal rights. In becoming a doctor, Dr. LaFlesche became much more than a healer. She had to also become public health worker, teacher, preacher, and legal advisor.
Her story started with journeys to schools and medical college over a thousand miles away from home—to New Jersey, Virginia and Philadelphia. In the process she had to learn a new language, adapt to a new religion and seek balance between the tribal way of life and the modern Eastern one. First as a pre-teen and eventually as to a young woman, she had to make a home among strangers and battle loneliness and homesickness while focusing on the ultimate goal—to become a doctor so she could help and heal her fellow Omaha people. As a professional woman tending to over a thousand patients spread out over a thousand square miles, she had to also struggle to find the work-family balance.
Biography is a genre that promises the satisfaction of reading a great novel—the opportunity to be immersed in another life and in another way of life. This particular biography offers all that and more. It informs and entertains while offering inspiration and a history lesson that are relevant even today.
Human civilization is in a constant state of churn. “Warrior of the People” tells the story of one such churning. It is a story that deserves to be known, for it is the story of a West-East encounter that is quintessentially American but is too often overlooked.