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Nursing Reservations: White Field Nurses, Scientific Medicine, and Settler Colonialism, 1924-1955

Lisa K Schuelke, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


Field nurses, primarily white women, encountered diverse cultures when they arrived on reservations in the American West between 1924 and 1955. Diseases were rampant, and many Native Americans had little knowledge of so-called modern medicine, frequently relying upon a combination of natural and spiritual remedies associated with various Indigenous traditions. White field nurses witnessed firsthand the devastating impact numerous illnesses had on Native Americans, and there is no doubt that the majority of the women in this study genuinely sought to relieve suffering associated with illnesses. Still, most field nurses intended to replace Indigenous curing with what they regarded as the superiority of white scientific medicine, thus assimilating Native Americans, a prominent feature of the broader settler colonial project. Enriching Native American health went hand in hand with biomedical assimilation. While field nurses worked to meet the need for better healthcare, they concluded that Indigenous models were inferior to Western medicine. At the same time, many Native Americans valued traditional healing, and were slow to adopt scientific medicine. Divergent cultural perspectives toward healthcare created tension between the two groups, fostering negotiations and resistance on both sides. White nurses in this study sometimes attempted to restrain Indigenous curing while Native Americans equally drew lines designed to restrict the invasion of white medicine. Still, until the early 1940s, field nurses were more likely to employ persuasion and public health teaching to meet their objectives. World War II fostered a sense of national unity, and after the United States entered the conflict, white nurses, physicians, and even tribal councils grew increasingly likely to employ coercion and force to attain compliance with biomedicine. During the early 1950s, medical services declined, and field nurses played a less active role in managing healthcare. Simultaneously, an uneven mixture of rising Native American authority over bodily care coexisted with repressive measures aimed at containment of contagious diseases.

Subject Area

American history|Womens studies|Native American studies

Recommended Citation

Schuelke, Lisa K, "Nursing Reservations: White Field Nurses, Scientific Medicine, and Settler Colonialism, 1924-1955" (2017). ETD collection for University of Nebraska-Lincoln. AAI10271032.