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A new documentary interweaves the lives of Native American women healers of today with the story of America’s first Native doctor.
Princella RedCorn made a stirring personal discovery while researching the writings of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, the first Native American doctor in the United States.
“Dr. Susan is from my tribe,” explains RedCorn. “I was reading her diaries and researching old photographs and a lot of my family was in them. She mentions she works on someone’s stomach and it was like my great-great grandfather. That was really exciting. It really brings history to life.”
RedCorn co-produced, with director Christine Lesiak, the new documentary Medicine Woman, a film that asks and seeks to answer the question of how to heal a people who continue to bear physical and psychological manifestations of historical trauma endured when families and ways of life are violently disrupted. Using Dr. Susan as a touchstone, RedCorn and Lesiak turn an intimate lens on her modern-day counterparts – Native women who live and work in their tribal communities as doctors and healers.
The relatives RedCorn read about were among the 1,200+ people for whom Dr. Susan instantaneously became primary care physician upon her return to the Omaha Reservation in northeast Nebraska after completing medical school and a residency on the East Coast in 1889. Many of the personal and professional struggles she faced in the Victorian age remain today. “The women that we interviewed are mothers who work full-time in hospitals and health care and also have their own families,” says RedCorn. “The added component would be trying to help their own tribal community – combine all those forces for Native women and it’s like an extra thing to balance to help their communities. It’s very personal because these are people you interact with daily. It’s really involved.”
Medically, Dr. Susan saw the emergence of alcoholism on the Omaha Reservation. “But the struggles haven’t changed that much over the years,” says Lesiak. “Alcohol has expanded to include all kinds of drugs. Tuberculosis is no longer a problem, but diabetes is. Suicide is rampant in places like Standing Rock. Bottom line is that these medicine women are living and working in some of the poorest places in America. And yet the story we’re telling is surprisingly hopeful. Like Dr. Susan, these women have a confident, even joyful approach to the work of healing. And most exciting, they’re learning new ways of healing that can help us all.”
RedCorn and Lesiak cite Dr. Lucy Reifel, a pediatrician on the Rosebud Reservation, as the closest modern-day match to Dr. Susan’s tenacious salutary spirit. “Dr. Susan was a doctor, advisor, translator, lobbyist, and spiritual advisor to her Omaha people,” says Lesiak. “Dr. Reifel is equally pivotal to her community. We filmed at her Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) clinic in Mission, SD and I believe she’s the most expansive, loving doctor I’ve ever seen in action.”
Dr. Reifel, who has worked alongside the Rosebud Sioux WIC mobile clinic since 1993, agrees she and Dr. Susan both dedicated their professional lives to the health care of their reservations, but she emphasizes the impact they’ve made on their communities outside their medical practices. “I coordinate a book giveaway program for infants and children, started a school district summer bookmobile, volunteer after school for Destination Imagination, and all of my kids attended public school here and excelled in sports, music, theatre, and many other extra-curricular activities,” says Reifel. “The balance is always challenging and seems best when the two can be interwoven. But for almost 37 years, I’ve lived and worked on Rosebud. Although my ‘jobs’ have been different, I have always been providing health care for children. I have saved some lives. I have helped many be healthier.”
Among those Dr. Reifel has helped is Casey, her adopted son. Dr. Reifel delivered Casey, who was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, 30 years ago and emphasizes that Casey has equally enriched her family’s lives. “Because of Casey’s disabilities, all of his brothers and sister learned, while still very young, that Casey needed help doing some things,” says Reifel. “They were all children with compassion for, not fearful of, kids like Casey and have become adults who help and defend the handicapped.”
Medicine Woman presents women doctors and healers who perpetually navigate intersections of identity – gender, race, abilities, traditional and conventional medical practices – on the reservation and off. Another healer, Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, whose autobiography, The Scalpel and The Silver Bear, accounts her quest to combine traditional Navajo healing techniques with her Stanford University surgical degree, had to overcome the Navajo taboo against touching the dead in order to get her medical degree. Alvord then returned to the healers of her tribe to learn “what a surgical residency could not teach me.”
What can the film teach us about what it takes to heal a people? RedCorn says the film provides a perspective on healthcare that’s been left out of the mainstream. “This is the Native American woman’s voice and their solutions to treating issues on the reservations. It’s a holistic viewpoint that looks at a person as a whole and at the environment, as opposed to just treating a symptom or diagnosing a body part.” RedCorn and Lesiak underscore supporting women like Reifel, Alvord, and countless others who are already doing the work. “When you allow a tribe to practice and govern themselves, they can come up with their own solutions, incorporating traditional medicine into their hospitals,” says RedCorn. “Just understanding and respecting tribal sovereignty is a good step.”
The film is narrated by poet and musician Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) and Dr. Susan’s letters, speeches and journals are voiced by actress Irene Bedard (Inupiat/Metis).
The documentary was selected for the Native American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, Nov. 4-12.
Medicine Woman airs on SDPB1 Sunday, November 13 at 10pm (9 MT) & Sunday, November 20 at 2pm (3 MT) and on SDPB2 Wednesday, November 16 at 8pm (7 MT).