Listen To Article
In her illustrious family, Rosalie couldn’t help but feel crowded out. I mean, her siblings were a “who’s who” of life among the Omaha in the late 19th century.
Susette La Flesche, firstborn, went out east for school and returned with the education her father wanted for all his children. Throughout her life, she attained celebrity status as a purposeful advocate for Native rights all over the east. “Bright Eyes,” people called her. And she was beautiful.
Rosalie’s little sister, Susan La Flesche Picotte, became the first Native American woman–and first Native American–to graduate from medical school. Susan practiced medicine throughout the region and reservation, to both Native and white residents.
Half-brother Frank documented the history of the Omaha people, as well as their Osage neighbors, their tales, roots, chants and songs, thereby preserving what would otherwise be so easily lost.
If sister Rosalie were envious, she would have been miserable with all those sibling headliners. Rosalie also got an education, but didn’t go out east, instead stayed home and took her education where the others had begun, at the Presbyterian boarding school.
“She stayed home” might be a good way to describe her life: “Rosalie La Flesche Farley, daughter of the final traditional chief of the Omaha, stayed home,” a load that required some heavy lifting. Rosalie and her husband had eight children and loved them all, but neither Mom or Dad were particularly domestic.
In the 1880s, the Omaha feared being death-marched to Indian Country, or moved anywhere over the chess board the Southern plains had become for America’s first nations. They’d seen the Winnebago dragged all over, watched the government push out the Ioway, the Pottawatomie, and Kickapoo, to get them out of the way of white settlers gobbling up land.
Some white folks recommended the Omaha getting a head start on what would eventually be the Dawes Act (1887), so that each tribal member could claim what white people called a “deed” that would guarantee no one could take their homes away.
The storm of government paperwork put Rosalie La Flesche Farley in the middle of the mess. No one was better equipped: she had an education, was fluent in Omaha and English, and had ties to a wider world. She was, in the late 19th century, not just the quarterback of the land use operation, but the head coach, really, of the whole tribe.
Lot lines on reservation land that, within memory, held buffalo herds, seemed to the Omaha perfectly ridiculous but wasteful to white squatters who could care less what the government did or proposed. Land distribution, meant to help Native people, became a painful legacy. Rosalie spent more time than anyone else in the middle of a mess that too often turned friends of both cultures into enemies.
Her diary is a compendium of responsibilities:
I think Mother doesn’t have the right food or her foot would be better.
Wrote for Little Deer and wife for three dollars worth of groceries at grove. We ate and Conlin came to have Me interpret.
Five Chiefs wife came by and got her things. Did a little washing and sewed balance of day. Henry Ward here. Ed helped him get $5.00 worth of groceries from Hobbs. Going to bed early half past ten.
For two decades Rosalie stayed home and held things together, family and tribe.
In The Middle Five, her brother Francis tells a story about the day three school boys decided to run away and follow the tribe on the hunt instead, behavior strictly prohibited by the Presbyterians. When the boys were forcefully returned, Francis’ hands were tied behind him, around the leg of a table. Soon, flies started to eat him up, he says, and a chicken pecked at his toe.
Then, “a little figure cautiously approached the door, looked all around, and then came up to me.” There he sat, wrinkled up as some ancient breechcloth. “It was Rosalie,” he says. She wiped the sweat from his forehead, got him a drink, and stayed at his side, brushing away flies. Her brother Frank never forgot.
Rosalie stayed home.
And then there’s this. No matter how much ink those siblings received and still do, look at any map of Thurston County, Nebraska, and you’ll see only one “Rosalie.” She’s the only famous La Flesche sibling who has a town named in her honor, and Rosalie stayed home. She just mostly stayed home.
Me? I can’t help but love the line carved into the stone over Rosalie’s grave: THE NOBILITY AND STRENGTH OF TWO RACES WERE BLENDED IN HER LIFE OF CHRISTIAN LOVE AND DUTY.
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the [life and] death of his saints.
Not that it makes a difference, but mine too.
And God remembers her, with all that means.
“She wiped the sweat from his forehead, got him a drink, and stayed at his side, brushing away flies.”
That’s everything, right there!
Beautiful piece of writing! Thank you!
Tears, and thanks to the many who follow her today into nursing homes and homeless shelters to hold hands, wash feet, and stay with. Also to those who build bridges between cultures and governments for the sake of the disenfranchised. Moving story. Thanks.
This is a wonderful story. She died at age 45? Thanks for documenting a small piece of a life that many at the time would think was lived in obscurity. We need more people willing to serve Christ in obscurity.
Thanks, Jim for that piece of history. What an amazing woman she was, and we all should try to be like her in temperament and actions.