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Omaha tribe works to save historic Walthill hospital built by first Native American doctor
A landmark could get a lift

Omaha tribe works to save historic Walthill hospital built by first Native American doctor

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WALTHILL, Neb. -- The Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital in the sleepy town of Walthill on the Omaha Indian Reservation has fallen on hard times.

In a rear corner of the white Craftsman-style structure, light floods through a gaping hole in the roof in what used to be an operating room. The water damage is even more severe in Picotte's former office, where the wood floor is crumbling and mold is growing on the ceiling and the walls.

Picotte, the first Native American to earn a medical degree and become a physician, founded the hospital in 1913. 

Susan LaFlesche Picotte

Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte is shown in this turn-of-the-century handout photo

A group of public and private partners, including the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, architects, community leaders and museum professionals, have come together in hopes of restoring the aging building. They'll need to raise just over $1 million for the project.

"I really feel like more people are realizing how important the early days were of this," Charmaine Lahmann said as she stood in the "family room," which holds glass cases filled with antique medical equipment, as well as photos and newspaper clippings documenting the LaFlesche family's history.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital

The Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital building in Walthill, Neb., is shown. 

In the late 1980s, Lahmann said she and other local residents, both native and non-native, formed a committee to try to maintain the hospital. Lahmann, the committee's treasurer, said roofing, which was put on the building about a decade ago, has failed.

"Within the last year, the tribe has gotten involved and the Nebraska Indian Commission is getting some grants started for us," she said. "It's very important to the history of the county and to the history of Nebraska."

Tribal Chairman Michael Wolfe said restoration plans have "created a buzz" on the reservation, in the Nebraska State Capitol and across the country. The tribe plans to use the building, once restored, as a museum, clinic and office.

"We have some young students now enrolling and wanting to become doctors in the medical field and that is what it's all about for me -- to just be proud. Maybe someone's going to pick this ball up and run with it and provide medical services for us," he said.

Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital

Omaha Tribe of Nebraska chair Michael Wolfe reads historical documents posted on a hallway wall at the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital building in Walthill, Neb.

Picotte was born near Macy, Nebraska, in 1865. Chief Big Elk adopted her father, Joseph LaFlesche, who was of Ponca and French Canadian ancestry, as an adult. LaFlesche, who took the name Iron Eye, was the last recognized chief of the Omaha Tribe. Picotte's mother was Mary Gale, the daughter of Dr. John Gale and Ni-co-mi, of the Iowa Tribe.

Joseph LaFlesche believed the Omaha had to adopt white customs and ways of life. The LaFlesche children abandoned Native American dress, lived in a frame house and attended the local Presbyterian or government agency schools.

After studying at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey and Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia, Picotte enrolled at the Women's Medical College in Philadelphia with funding from the Women's National Indian Association and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She graduated at the top of her class in 1889, becoming the first Native American to earn a medical degree. Picotte interned in Philadelphia before returning to the reservation, where she was the primary medical provider. She died in 1915 of what was believed to be bone cancer.

"She had a hard life, but she was making it better for others," Wolfe said. "That's the Omaha way. It doesn't matter how difficult it is, when another needs your help, you'll provide anything, even if it's the shirt off your back."

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Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital
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Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital
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Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital
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Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital
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Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital

Through Picotte's fundraising efforts, the Walthill Indian Hospital was built in 1912. It is believed to be the first hospital constructed for any Indian reservation without federal funding. The three-story, 33-room building was designed by architect William L. Steele, who later designed the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City. The Walthill building, which was later re-named in honor of Picotte, served as a hospital until the late 1940s. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1993. In recent years, before falling into disrepair, the hospital housed Mi'Jhu'Wi Ministries, a nonprofit providing services to the people of the Omaha reservation. 

"If we can capture an audience here and provide the services that Susan LaFlesche (Picotte) started this operation for in the first place, we want to continue her legacy," Wolfe said. "Spiritually, physically and mentally, she gave of herself completely for the welfare of all people."

Copyright 2018 The Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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