The Incredible Tale of Mrs. Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail

The Incredible Tale of Mrs. Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was born in 1903. Her mother, Kills The Enemy, was Oglala Sioux and her father, Walking Bear, was Apsáalooke Crow. Her childhood, like many Indigenous children at the time, was tumultuous. Her birth father died before she was born, and she was raised until adolescence by her mother and step-father, before becoming an orphan at age 12. She was sent to Indian Boarding School, before meeting a Baptist missionary, Francis Shaw, and traveling with her to Denver, Oklahoma, and finally Northfield, MA. 

Like most non-whites of her era, Susie faced racial discrimination when trying to start her career. She was forced to use the last name “Bear” instead of Walking Bear, among other identity-erasing changes necessary to pursue her career. She was eventually accepted to a nursing program at Franklin County Public Health Hospital in Greenfield, MA, and completed her internship at Boston General Hospital.  Upon graduating in 1927 as the first RN of Crow descent, she went back to work at the Public Health Hospital for a short time, before moving to a private nursing facility in Oklahoma. She moved to Chippewa country in Minnesota and worked in home health nursing for their indigenous community before moving back to Montana and marrying Thomas Yellowtail (who later became the spiritual leader of the Crow tribe). She began working at the Indian Health Service’s Hospital for Crow Nation, where her passion for improving the health of Indigenous Americans really blossomed. 

Susie spent 2 years advocating for the modernization of health services offered to the Crow peoples, and fighting forced sterilization of Native American women. Yes, that happened. Yes, it is an atrocious bit of history. And yet, last year, we heard stories of the same horrendous treatment happening to detained immigrants in the US last year. History repeats itself. 

Not content to simply make life better for those in her immediate community, Susie spent the years between 1930 and 1960 working to enact change from inside the system. She worked for the US Federal Government, as well as State Government, to both document the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Indian Health Services (IHS) facilities, as well as advocate changes to improve said services and programs. Many of the issues she highlighted and worked to change during her career bear many similarities to the issues minorities (especially minority women) face today. Examples include, the inability of non-native nurses to speak with patients with culturally sensitive perspective and/or in their native language; unsanitary living conditions and lack of education around the spread of disease; and clinical care being limited to people with proximity to IHS hospitals.

This list is certainly not exhaustive, but it gets the point across - minority population health in the United States has always been an issue and will continue to be until Federal and State governments enact legislation to prioritize the physical and mental health of these populations over for-profit opportunities. 

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was not accomplished in her advocacy for the health of Indigenous peoples - she was also a member of a world-renowned dance troupe, the Crow Indian Ceremonial Dancers. The group, including Susie, toured Western Europe in the mid-1950s, including a month-long stint of sold-out shows in Paris. 

Susie’s accomplishments were well recognized during her lifetime. She was awarded the President’s Award for Outstanding Nursing by President John F. Kennedy in 1962 and continued to serve the State and Federal Government as an advisor through the 1970s. In 1978, she was honored by the organization she helped start, the American Indian Nurses Association, as the “Grandmother of American Indian Nurses”. She passed from this celestial plane in 1981 at her home and was posthumously inducted into the Montana Hall of Fame (1987) and the American Nurses Association Hall of Hame (2002). She was the first Indigenous American inductee into the ANA’s Hall of Fame. 

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