Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail, RN (1903-1981) was a nursing pioneer whose life was filled with groundbreaking accomplishments. And even after her death, she continues to make history: On July 1, she became the first American Indian nurse to be inducted into the American Nursing Association’s prestigious Hall of Fame.
Born on the Crow Agency reservation in Montana, Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was the first American Indian registered nurse in the U.S., as well as an activist who fought tirelessly to achieve better health care for Indian people. After graduating from Boston City Hospital School of Nursing in 1923, she returned to Crow Agency to work in the Bureau of Indian Affairs Hospital. The injustices she witnessed there–such as the forced sterilization of Crow women without their consent–galvanized her into a lifelong fight to end abuses in the Indian health care system.
From 1930 to 1960, the Crow/Sioux nurse traveled to reservations throughout the country to assess the problems American Indians faced. One of Yellowtail’s assessments revealed that seriously ill Navajo children were literally dying on the backs of their mothers, who often had to walk 20 miles or more to reach the nearest hospital. To fight these iniquities, she joined state health advisory boards and quickly became well known among national health care policy-makers.
In the 1970s, Yelowtail was appointed to President Nixon’s Council on Indian Health, Education and Welfare and to the federal Indian Health Advisory Committee. These appointments gave her a national platform for advocating for the health needs of her people. She also founded the first professional association for Native American nurses and was instrumental in winning tribal and government funding to help Indians enter the nursing profession. In 1962, Yellowtail received the President’s Award for Outstanding Nursing Health Care.
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