Professor Walks Miles in Susan La Flesche's Shoes

By Matthew Hansen

Read a preview of Joe Starita's book here. »   

Joe StaritaFor the past few years, if you walked your dog in the Sheridan Boulevard neighborhood of Lincoln, there’s a good chance you glimpsed a tall stranger with thinning hair. He walked alone, strode with the loose gait of an aging athlete. He probably didn’t see you. He was lost deep in thought.

The lone walker is an ex-baseball star, an ex-world wanderer, an ex-construction worker, an ex-investigative reporter and now a beloved (and oft-bedeviling) journalism professor who moonlights as maybe the finest non-fiction writer in Nebraska.

And the lone walker wasn’t actually walking alone. Joe Starita was walking with the story of an Omaha Indian girl born in a buffalo-hide tipi in 1865, who rose to become the country’s first-ever Native American doctor — a feat she achieved 31 years before women could vote and 35 years before the U.S. government recognized Native Americans as citizens.

As he walked he wrestled with a paragraph, or a sentence, or a single word from his new biography of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte. He was walking, lost in thought, trying to figure out how to get readers to know, to feel, Susan’s story like he does.

“I needed to pull the reader inside her buggy, to pull the reader inside Susan’s head, to pull the reader inside her heart when it was breaking,” he says. And so he walked, a short or long one depending on “how tangled the narrative knot was that I was trying to untangle.”

“If I was on 30th or 31st Street, it was a small knot,” Starita says. “If I was on Sherdian Boulevard, it was approaching a Gordian knot.”

The story that Starita has untangled is the sort of story that writers dream of, the sort of story that grabbed the former Miami Herald reporter and current UNL journalism professor by the lapels the first time he heard it, and wouldn’t let go.

Susan La Flesche PortraitSusan La Flesche, daughter of an Omaha Indian chief and the younger sister of famed translator Bright Eyes, was born in 1865. As her father and her tribe grappled with the massive migration of settlers into their homeland in Northeast Nebraska, Susan ventured the other way, a reverse pioneer. She attended boarding school, then the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia. Finally, after a rich-and-powerful group of East Coast socialites took up her cause, she became the first Native American to enter the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, then the only U.S. medical school that accepted women.

Despite being nearly penniless, homesick and cultural light years from home, Susan La Flesche graduated as her medical school class valedictorian. Then she turned down lucrative offers to practice medicine and do research in the hallowed halls of East Coast medicine. She climbed on a west-bound train. She returned home, bought a horse-and-buggy and devoted her entire adult life to caring for sick Omaha Indians as well as anyone else within an 1,350-square-mile radius.

Starita’s new book, “A Warrior of the People,” is the story of the American West told from the first female Native American doctor’s point of view, instead of Custer’s or Crazy Horse’s. It is the story of a woman who managed to walk the thinnest gender and cultural tight rope her entire life, without ever falling off.

“At a time when the federal government was hell-bent on destroying the identity of its native people, stripping them of their traditional clothing, their ceremonies, their dances, their religion and their language, this woman born in a buffalo hide tipi tent was able to triumph in the white world without losing her Indian soul,” Starita tells me during a planned two-hour interview that stretches to five.

“That’s the home run Susan hit! And she didn’t just barely get that baseball out. She parked it in the upper deck!”

To a generation of UNL journalism students, including myself, that last paragraph sounds oh-so-familiar. Being a Starita pupil meant fighting through a blizzard of sports metaphors, only to find a journalistic diamond — a priceless nugget about interviewing, writing or life itself — buried in a snowbank.

It also meant wondering about the sage at the front of the room, swapping stories about his colorful past like they were Topps trading cards.

He got drafted by the Dodgers and then blew out his arm, one student would say. He played semi-pro basketball in Turkey, someone else would say. He lived on a kibbutz in Israel. He worked construction in Oakland.

During our interview, Starita confirmed all four, and added that he briefly worked for a shady environmental clean-up business in New Jersey, though he then grinned and refused further explanation. All this happened during a period of young wandering that led him into adulthood and eventually into journalism. He rose from humble beginnings at the Daily Nebraskan, UNL’s college paper, to become a Miami Herald reporter taking down crooked doctors and scam artists. He then returned to Lincoln, first as the city editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, and then as our metaphor-loving professor.

Even as he went from Lincoln boy to semi-pro hoops in Turkey to the epicenter of South Florida journalism and then back home again, Starita maintained a lifelong interest in Native American history and culture.

His first attempt to write about Native Americans: “I was in sixth grade. We were asked to write a four-page biography of someone we admire. I wrote 40 pages on Crazy Horse.”

Two of his first three books are about Native Americans. The most recent, “I am a Man,” a history of Standing Bear’s trial, was chosen as this state’s One Book One Nebraska in 2012.

Starita is an obsessive man — Hemingway, Springsteen, Husker football — but he says he’s never been quite as obsessed with a project as he got with his fourth book, the biography of Susan La Flesche.

Susan La FlescheHe spent years bothering librarians and historians in Nebraska, Virginia and Pennsylvania, eventually amassing a treasure trove of hundreds of letters Susan wrote to her friends, benefactors and family. And he walked his neighborhood each morning, sorting Susan’s story in his head before heading back to his computer and beginning another day of writing. He walked in January, so he could feel the cold that Susan felt as she bounced on horse-and-buggy across the northeast Nebraska prairie toward a sick patient. He walked in July, walked until his shirt was drenched. He walked by himself, but never, ever alone.

“Here’s the thing about Susan,” he tells me, “she understood at an early age that the purpose of life is not to try to avoid pain and suffering. The purpose of life is to find a purpose. And then have the courage to complete that purpose.”

“Susan understood that basic fact, and so, to me, ultimately this is a story of the triumph of the human spirit. The triumph of the human spirit!

“Once I understood that, once I understood the narrative arc, what was I going to do? Go golfing? No way. No way!”

Red Cloud-native Matthew Hansen is a 2003 graduate of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. He is a metro columnist at the Omaha World-Herald and remains a devoted fan of his college professor Joe Starita.