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Film Portrays Life of First Native Woman Doctor

Princella P. RedCorn
Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord (Navajo) walks out to her favorite scenic location in Page, Arizona.

The film Medicine Woman by Princella RedCorn portrays the life of the first Native American doctor—Susan La Flesche Picotte—an Omaha woman who became a doctor in the late 1800's. She rallied for basic health care and was a passionate prohibitionist. She practiced medicine at a time when very little was available to doctors like herself. 

Medicine Woman isn't just about La Flesche...RedCorn also interweaves three stories of modern day Native doctors who are combining traditional healing with western medicine to help their people.

Listen to the interview here:

Princella RedCorn: I first heard of Dr. Susan when I was a young girl. I was in the Macy Medical Clinic in Nebraska. We were in the waiting room and they had her portrait on the wall and my mom said that she was the first Native doctor.

I was working on a film called Standing Bear’s Footsteps, was discovering Suzette La Flesche, who is Susan’s older sister. This La Flesche family is a very prominent family in the Omaha tribe. In researching Suzette for Standing Bear’s Footsteps, she played a role in translating for Standing Bear, went on a human rights mission to the east coast.  She was basically one of the first Indian feminists of her day.

So, after that film was done, me and my producer Christine Lesiak talked about doing the same documentary on Dr. Susan La Flesche. 

She went to medical college at a time when it was hardly imagined that women went to medical school and she graduated in 1895.  I found a lot of her journals, photographs. She did this whole album book of photographs of Omaha Indian homes because she was trying to show the government how well the Omaha’s were doing then. Her father was the last chief of the Omaha’s and was very adamant about not having alcohol on the reservation. When he died, she kind of carried on in his footsteps and became a passionate prohibitionist.

Allison Herrera: The documentary isn’t just about Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, but it’s about a lot of Native women who are doctors and healers in present day.

PR: One of the women we picked was Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord. She was nominated for surgeon general of the United States and wrote the book the Scalpel and the Silver Bear and it’s about combining western medicine with traditional Navajo medicine and how does that look. She kind of meets with a medicine man from the Navajo tribe and tries to incorporate that into her surgery practice.

Credit Princella P. RedCorn
Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord (Navajo) preforms surgery at Page Hospital while videographer Pat Aylward and audio engineer Jake Hoyungowa (Navajo/Hopi) record.

AH: When you were making the film, what’s a story, or something or someone that stood out to you-that embodies the work of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte started?

PR:  I would say the one that most embodies Dr. Susan Susan La Flesche Picotte is Dr. Lucy Reifel. She’s always been a big proponent of mothers not drinking and trying to create awareness around that.  She has been really big about educating people about fetal alcohol syndrome.

AH: You had a lot of access in this film. What was that like for you to go there and talk to people not everyone gets to reach and don’t know anything about. It’s not an image we see in media when we talk about those reservations. It’s always about poverty, but here you’re portraying something that people are doing to help themselves.

PR:  We kind of had an issue with that when we first started seeing some of our cuts together, because a lot of the women came off very happy and very healthy. But we still needed to show that there are still a lot of issues going on in their communities. When we tried to do that, it was very negative. Moving forward we tried to keep it, ‘what is the solutions going on? What are these women doing…what can they teach us?’ So we tried to focus on that.

AH: How do the women incorporate traditional healing with western medicine or what they’re taught in medical school?

PR:  Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord…for her, incorporating the Navajo traditional medicine was about going through ceremonies. In the Page Hospital in Arizona, where she’s practicing now, they have a shell of a hogan and if a patient wants to use that, they can bring a cover and a bring a medicine man to do prayers and things like that.

Credit Christine Lesiak
Pierre Merrick (Omaha), producer Princella P. RedCorn (Omaha) and Marlon Scott (Omaha) assemble willow branches to build a traditional sweat lodge.

AH: The film is finished. Where can we see the film in the immediate future? It’s also going to be on PBS, correct?

PR: This Sunday, May 15th I’m going to be showing Medicine Woman  at The Circle Cinema here in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  We’ll have a reception in the lobby at 1 p.m. At 2 p.m., we’ll watch the film—it’s about an hour long. Then, we’ll have a Q and A session afterwards. It will be myself, Wehnona Stabler, who’s in the film and Joy Harjo who narrates the film.

Medicine Woman will broadcast on PBS Plus in November for Native Heritage month. How people can watch that is go to their local PBS station and request they play Medicine Woman. 

AH: Princella RedCorn thank you so much for talking to me about your film Medicne Woman, which will play Sunday, May 15th at 2pm at The Circle Cinema.

PR:  Thank you.

Watch a trailer for the film here:

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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