Nursing for Generations: Kiowa Peoplehood in the Work of Laura Pedrick
When smallpox erupted across the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache Reservation in 1900, local people began to panic. Experienced Kiowa and Comanche healers knew smallpox as a Western disease that usually required Western treatment. Rocky plains made difficult passage for the horse-drawn buggies that Charles Hume and Harry Wheeler, the reservation’s two government physicians, used to make their calls. But across three million acres of those plains, four thousand potential patients lived, worked, and slept. Something had to be done.
In part, that’s why Laura Pedrick (T’oyhawlma) ended up vaccinating so many people.
Like Dr. Hume, Pedrick lived near the reservation’s government headquarters. It seems Hume correctly believed that enlisting Pedrick in his vaccination efforts would produce a more effective campaign and supplied her with a large portion of his vaccine material. Each morning, Pedrick left her home to visit Kiowa families, inoculating as many as she could between cooking, sewing, and cleaning lessons. Within a few weeks, Laura found that she was able “to perform the operation quite successfully.”
By then, Pedrick had been working as a government field matron for two years: this was neither the first time nor the last that she would labor for the survival of her Kiowa relatives. As an elderly woman, Pedrick used her prominence as a beadworker to promote Kiowa sovereignty and to negotiate for resources from the Office of Indian Affairs. But her dedication to Kiowa peoplehood was lifelong: as a field matron decades earlier, Pedrick engaged in work that was both deeply problematic and materially vital for her nation, harnessing a colonial institution to protect her people’s future. In both word and deed, she framed nursing care as an essential exercise of survival and sovereignty for an Indigenous nation struggling through colonization. It was as a nurse, Pedrick often wrote, that she found her “greatest power to do good amongst my people.”
Pedrick structured her work around a desire to protect Kiowa peoplehood from the very beginning, a drive that likely arose from her dichotomous adolescence. Born around 1863 to a prominent Kiowa family, T’oyhawlma grew up on the plains during a period of Kiowa military resistance to reservation policy and white settlement. As a child, she observed the United States government levy physical violence and economic devastation against her people. But when she was fifteen, reservation officials sent T’oyhalwma to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, an institution that became notorious for its mission to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
Arriving during Carlisle’s first year of operations, T’oyhawlma became part of the first generation of Native students to experience the force of assimilation policy from within its doors. There, she grew familiar with Christianity and corsets, white bread and her new name. Laura also met Native youth from across North America and learned about what happened in their homes, about their own losses at the hands of soldiers and settlers, knowledge which apparently motivated Pedrick and many other Native youth to seek socio-economic uplift for Indigenous people across North America.
Settlers called Pedrick and her peers “New Indians” because of their exposure to white culture and their developing pan-Indigenous politics. Historians have critiqued this politics for its purported rejection of tribal sovereignty in favor of American citizenship. But as people like Pedrick demanded both American citizenship and greater political and economic support for their tribal nations, they drew on a long legacy of Indigenous cultural exchange that made room for multivalent social and political identities. “New Indian” demands for citizenship and voting rights came not at the expense of, but in addition to, their investment in tribal sovereignty.
Pedrick returned to Kiowa country harboring a desire to help her nation on “their new road” toward Christianity and American citizenship, changes she believed would safeguard their civil rights and lead to improved socio-economic conditions on the reservation. Laura ultimately found a venue for that desire in the field matron program. Founded in 1895, the program contracted women to instruct and enforce the practice of idealized Euro-American domesticity among Native women and their kin. Believing that female workers could eliminate Indigenous women’s anti-colonial resistance, the federal government hired field matrons to glean Native people’s assimilation through access to their domestic lives.
This program, then, rested on an ethic of settler colonization that sought to eliminate tribal sovereignty through the abolition of Indigenous cultural practices, kinship networks, and political structures. As a field matron, Pedrick undoubtedly perpetuated rhetoric that decried traditional housing, foodways, and religion as detrimental to Indigenous people’s well-being. Her field matron reports contain the language of assimilation policy, noting disapproval of some Kiowa traditions and expressing hope for the conversion of her people to Christianity and “civilization.” This rhetoric contributed to constrictions of tribal sovereignty, hurt Indigenous people’s ability to build self-determined lives, and led to losses of cultural knowledge.
Yet the largely unregulated and overextended character of the field matron program allowed for significant slippage in mission and practice among its employees. Pedrick’s regular duties often fell by the wayside in the face of disease, as she quickly found that her days consisted “more…in looking after the sick than any other branch of my work.” She often squeezed sewing meetings between long hours spent healing her neighbors or abandoned lectures to spend all night at a sick child’s bedside. Like most field matrons employed across the United States, Pedrick had inadvertently become a full-time nurse. And, though she spent time assisting government physicians, Laura completed most of her house calls alone. Whether she employed Kiowa medicines in her work is unclear, but she did not adhere to any set of institutional standards as a nurse.
Therefore, Pedrick used her position as a nurse to improve the material conditions in which Kiowa people lived and to advocate for their socioeconomic independence and civil rights. She clearly understood nursing as an especially vital element of that kind of community care. Laura’s reports show that she used each day to improve the medical treatments Kiowa people received, improving the prospects of survival and wellness for the most marginalized in her community. From her first month of employment, Pedrick assisted Dr. Hume. She could “read and interpret the direction[s] to my people in regards to medicines” and “materially assist the Doctor with his patients because I can reason with my people in their own languages.” Through this work, Pedrick boosted Dr. Hume’s ability to diagnose illnesses and prescribe medicines effectively. She often argued that her nursing and interpretive skills, along with her community ties, not only improved the accuracy of medical prescriptions but increased the likelihood that Kiowa people would complete recommended treatments.
Pedrick even successfully lobbied to make long-term changes to the reservation’s medical program. Early in her tenure, Pedrick petitioned the reservation’s agent to issue her rations that she would distribute to the sick, so that people would “have rations at the time they most need them.” Before Laura created this program, the infirm would not have access to rations distributed monthly from a single site at the reservation headquarters, which was for many residents an eighty-mile round trip. At a time when access to food, water, and a comfortable bed, rather than advanced medical treatment, was the best protection against death, Pedrick’s determination to provide food to those who could not otherwise access it would have been vital.
As a nurse, Pedrick had responded to an unfulfilled need for reliable care in times of illness. But her work was not simply a crisis response. At a time when infectious diseases devastated reservation communities across North America, good health resisted the federal government’s eliminatory strategies. Pedrick knew that substandard rations, housing, and medical infrastructure left her people more vulnerable not only to disease, but to the social, economic, and political predation of settlers and the federal government.
Particularly in the months before the reservation was opened to white settlement in 1901, Pedrick feared for her people. She wrote that she spent[gblockquote]a considerable portion of my time nursing and caring for sick, and learning others to do the same. I try to make them see, that a great change is about to come upon them. That in the future they will have to receive white people upon their reservation…we who are employed to help them should I think prepare ourselves for the struggle of our life in their behalf.[/gblockquote]
Here, Pedrick connected her work protecting the poorest, the “sick ones, and helpless” to the tribal nation’s effort to survive an onslaught of white settlement and federal policy that sought to shatter Kiowa peoplehood. Though much of her labor likely consisted of helping her relatives and neighbors to simply make it through the day, Pedrick was nursing to ensure the survival of her people for generations. As she visited the injured, the infirm, and the contagious, Laura nevertheless trusted that she would “continue well and be able to take care of my people,” to ensure the ongoing strength and integrity of Kiowa communities.
- In this essay, Laura Pedrick is referred to primarily as “Pedrick” and sometimes as “Laura.” As a child and teenager, she went primarily by her Kiowa name, variously written as T’oyhawlma, Tone-adle-mah, To-hodle-ty, or T’owiddle. She may have used these names among other Kiowa people throughout her life, but this practice is not recorded, and her education at Carlisle may have led her to move away from using them. In her adult life, Laura had two married names, Doanmo(r)e and Pedrick. If she had a surname before her marriage to Etadleuh Doanmoe in 1883, it is not recorded. Therefore, I have made the imperfect choice to refer to her by the names which she most clearly used throughout her adult life. ↑
- Laura Pedrick, December 31, 1900, Kiowa-Field Matrons, Undated and Apr. 13, 1871-Jun. 30, 1906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication, Roll 72); Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75, National Archives-Affiliated Archives: record on deposit at the Research and Archives Division, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. ↑
- Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote, Crafting an Indigenous Nation: Kiowa Expressive Culture in the Progressive Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 93. ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Aug. 31, 1899, Kiowa-Field Matrons (Roll 72). ↑
- Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose, eds., Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations (University of Nebraska Press, 2016); Elisabeth M. Eittreim, Teaching Empire: Native Americans, Filipinos, and U.S. Imperial Education, 1879–1918 (University Press of Kansas, 2019). ↑
- Tom Holm, The Great Confusion in Indian Affairs: Native Americans and Whites in the Progressive Era (University of Texas Press, 2005), 61–70. ↑
- K. Tsianina Lomawaima, “The Mutuality of Citizenship and Sovereignty: The Society of American Indians and the Battle to Inherit America,” Studies in American Indian Literatures 25, no. 2 (2013): 335. ↑
- Tone-Pah-Hote, Crafting an Indigenous Nation, 93. ↑
- Lisa Elizabeth Emmerich, “‘To Respect and Love and Seek the Ways of White Women’: Field Matrons, the Office of Indian Affairs, and Civilization Policy, 1890–1938,” PhD diss. (University of Maryland, College Park, 1987); Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (University of Nebraska Press, 2009); Cathleen D. Cahill, Federal Fathers and Mothers: A Social History of the United States Indian Service (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Aug. 31, 1899, Kiowa-Field Matrons (Roll 72). ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Aug. 31, 1899, Kiowa-Field Matrons, Roll 72. ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Aug. 31, 1899, Kiowa-Field Matrons, Roll 72. ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Jun. 30, 1901, Kiowa-Field Matrons, Roll 72. ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Oct. 31, 1902, Kiowa-Field Matrons, Roll 72. ↑
- Laura Pedrick, Dec. 31, 1900, Kiowa-Field Matrons, Roll 72. ↑
Jessica is a PhD Candidate in Duke University’s Department of History studying health in modern history. Her dissertation illustrates medicine’s role as a key site of engagement between Indigenous people, settlers, and the U.S. government between 1880 and 1934. It explores how Kiowas, members of a Great Plains tribal nation, used both Indigenous and Western healing practices to sustain and reconstitute their communities through this era of settler occupation. This work comes from a broader interest in local, family, and place-based histories which tangibly illustrate the impact of the past on our everyday lives.