Two dozen teenaged girls, labeled as Crow Indians, stand in a row in identical dresses in front of a two or three story building, one of Montana's Indian Boarding Schools

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail and Histories of Native American Nursing

I first encountered Susie Yellowtail (Crow) in a July 1934 letter in which a physician on her reservation condemned her for making “selfish” requests on health workers’ time and resources.1 The physician was angry that Yellowtail refused to accept hospital services for the birth of her child, and he made it clear that the Crow mother would receive no assistance from his field staff. I later learned that the physician penned this letter too late; Yellowtail had delivered her third child at home with the assistance of older Crow women a week earlier.

With this primary source as my starting point, I began piecing together everything I could of Susie Yellowtail’s story, a process that included oral history interviews with several of the Crow woman’s descendants and kin.

Susie Yellowtail, it turns out, was the first Crow registered nurse, having graduated from the Boston City Hospital School of Nursing seven years before she received the above letter. She was also a former employee of the government hospital in which the letter’s author worked. Yet she clearly was not acting in ways that government officials expected, and she would continue to defy expectations throughout her life.2

Remarkable in many ways, Yellowtail’s story sparked my interest in the history of Native nursing. I discovered, as the historian Mary Jane Logan McCallum has argued in the Canadian context, that we can learn a good deal about the history of modern Native America by viewing Native nurses like Yellowtail – too often overlooked in histories of nursing as well as histories of Indigenous health – as serious subjects of historical study.

Six young women, including Susie Walking Bear, sit posed for a class photo, three standing in the back, three sitting on chairs int he front, all in white nursing uniforms
Susie Walking Bear (standing center in the back row) with her graduating class from Boston City Hospital’s School of Nursing in 1923. She finished her nursing training at Franklin County Public Hospital in Greenfield, Massachusetts. After working with other tribes for a few years, Susie returned to the Crow Reservation and married Thomas Yellowtail. (Montana Historical Society Research Center)

Born in 1903 and educated in Indian boarding schools in Montana and Oklahoma, Yellowtail enrolled in an East Coast nursing program through the assistance of Baptist sponsors. The prominence of boarding schools and missionaries in her story places her experiences squarely within the assimilationist context of the early twentieth century. In these years, social reformers, federal officials, and reservation employees strove to assimilate – or Americanize – Native peoples, depriving them of markers of indigeneity and preparing them for American citizenship as individuals rather than as tribal members.

Proponents of assimilation had long viewed health and medicine as key sites in the transformation they envisioned, and some recognized that Native women could potentially facilitate their people’s assimilation through nursing, while also providing the basic care that many communities urgently needed. Boarding schools often provided female students with rudimentary training, and a Presbyterian hospital on the Navajo Nation inaugurated an accredited registered nursing program a few years after Yellowtail’s graduation. Soon after that, the federal government founded its own nurse-training program at an Indian hospital in Oklahoma, although this program lacked accreditation.3

Susie Yellowtail was very much a trailblazer in the 1920s, but in other ways she continued the legacy of so many Crow and Native women before her in advancing the health and well-being of her family and community. In many Native cultures, women as well as men played important roles as healers in their communities. A woman might have been highly regarded for her knowledge of plant-based medicines and/or her supernatural powers, for example, and women performed vital work as midwives and pediatric specialists.

Headshot of a Native American woman, Susie Walking BEar Yellowtail, wearing a headscarf with hair in braids
Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail. (Wikimedia Commons)

Generally speaking, the federal government viewed this healing work as entirely distinct from – and inferior to – Western nursing practices. In the decades prior to Yellowtail’s graduation, government employees disparaged Native women’s healing knowledge, while criminalizing the work of male healers. But Yellowtail and other Native nurses did not necessarily perceive or abide by the same rigid separation of medical practice and sometimes used their positions to promote a more pluralistic approach to health and medicine. During her brief tenure in the government hospital at Crow Agency in the late 1920s, for example, Yellowtail looked the other way when patients brought elements of Indigenous healing practices, including peyote, into the institution. Throughout the twentieth century, Native nurses would be at the forefront of efforts to incorporate Indigenous healers and medicines into hospital and other clinical settings.

Once trained and hired, Native nurses often assumed roles as patient advocates. For her part, Yellowtail was appalled by the conditions she encountered at her reservation hospital upon her return home. She began speaking up about the institution’s inadequacies and the mistreatment of patients, especially women. Yellowtail did not remain employed at the hospital for long; she resigned out of frustration after a few months on the job.

A few years after leaving the hospital as an employee, Yellowtail entered the institution for the birth of her second child (she delivered her first child at an off-reservation hospital). Her negative experience as a patient is what persuaded her to give birth to her next child at home. Shortly after her third delivery, Yellowtail reluctantly entered the reservation hospital again due to a pain in her abdomen. When she woke up from surgery, the Crow mother learned that she had been sterilized without her knowledge. She was devastated and outraged. Yellowtail alleged that coercive sterilizations were common on the reservation during this period, and she spoke out on this issue, too, challenging the discretionary authority that physicians wielded on reservations. She later recalled how she agitated for the removal of physicians with whom she was dissatisfied; one such physician was almost certainly the man who sterilized her.

She also began another form of activism when she agreed to attend Crow women’s births as a midwife. For at least two decades, Yellowtail combined her Western medical training with birthing knowledge she learned from older Crow women in order to provide women with safe childbirth experiences outside the government hospital.

There is evidence that some government employees viewed Yellowtail as something of a troublemaker, and her story demonstrates that Native nurses could be disruptive forces within government hospitals. Partly for this reason, for decades the Bureau of Indian Affairs preferred not to assign Native nurses within their home communities and instead to send them to hospitals on other reservations. In doing so, the BIA was increasingly at odds with the demands of tribal leaders, who viewed the employment of tribal members at reservation hospitals as a matter of self-determination.

Native nurses could also act as mediators between Native patients and non-Native health workers and health care systems. In the post-World War II period, Yellowtail assisted with public health screenings on her reservation. She also chaired the Crow health committee that emerged at midcentury. In this capacity, Yellowtail promoted health education for tribal members, but she did not view the educational process as unidirectional. Susie’s granddaughter Jackie Yellowtail remembers her grandmother’s efforts to “acculturate” new doctors: the retired Crow nurse invited physicians to her home, cooked for them, and talked to them about “our culture, our ways.”4

In the 1970s, an era of reinvigorated Native activism, Native nurses organized in new ways. Yellowtail was a founding member of the American Indian Nurses Association (AINA) early in the decade. Through AINA, Native nurses worked collectively to advance Native health, and they dedicated particular energy to recruiting young Native women into nursing to continue this work. In these years, once again, Native nurses raised concerns regarding the coercive sterilization of Native women. In 1973, a group of Native nurses invited Connie Pinkerton-Uri, a Choctaw and Cherokee physician, to the Indian hospital in Claremore, Oklahoma. The nurses were protesting discriminatory labor practices and poor patient care, and they sounded alarm bells regarding sterilization practices. Pinkerton-Uri became a visible leader in the struggle against coercive sterilization, and she credited Native nurses with leading this “revolt.”5 The adoption of new regulations at the end of the decade provided Native women with some protection from unwanted surgical procedures.

Susie Yellowtail died in 1981, but Native nurses continue her legacy in the twenty-first century. In 2015, Margaret Moss, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, edited the first textbook on American Indian health and nursing. Moss insists on the compatibility of nursing and Indigenous worldviews and philosophies on health and healing, as both foreground holistic approaches and recognize the importance of treating “the whole person.”6 The textbook sounds a theme long articulated by Yellowtail and her colleagues: the future of Native health and well-being depends in part on the recruitment of more Native nurses.

Notes

  1. Charles Nagel to Susie Yellowtail, 31 July 1934, Crow Agency General Correspondence Files, Record Group 75, Box 18, Folder 155, National Archives and Records Administration, Broomfield, Colorado. Return to text.
  2. In narrating Yellowtail’s biography, I have drawn primarily on interviews with Yellowtail’s descendants, as well as Therese Hinkell, comp., Nurse of the Twentieth Century: Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, First Native American Registered Nurse (Shelburne, MA: Therese Hinkell, 2000); and Susie Yellowtail with Marina Brown Weatherly, “Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail: A Life Story,” manuscript-in-progress. My sincere thanks to Marina Weatherly for sharing parts of this transcript with me. Return to text.
  3. See Robert Trennert, “Sage Memorial Hospital and the Nation’s First All-Indian School of Nursing,” The Journal of Arizona History 44, no. 4 (2003): 353–74. Return to text.
  4. Jackie Yellowtail, interview by author, 21 June 2016, Garryowen, Montana. Return to text.
  5. Connie Uri, interview by Jim Bergland, 25 Sept. 1974, Pacifica Radio Archives, North Hollywood, California. Return to text.
  6. Margaret Moss, ed., American Indian Health and Nursing (New York: Springer Publishing Co., 2015), 7. Return to text.

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