November 1, 2007 | American Society of Registered Nurses®
Chronicle of Nursing

Big Heart

A big heart and willing arms. Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was born on the Crow reservation in Montana on January 27, 1903. With a big heart and hands willing to work hard for the good of others, Susie's path would soon lead her on a journey toward greatness. Her life is an example of the power of one as a force for good. Susie Yellowtail graduated from the Boston City Hospital School of Nursing in 1923 to become the first American Indian registered nurse in the United States. Blazing trails unfamiliar to others became a way of life for Susie as she returned to her beloved Crow community to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs Hospital.

Her goal was to help and give back to the people she loved, unfortunately the atrocities she would witness break her heart. For instance, Crow women were often forced to undergo sterilization without their consent. A woman of action, Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was not content to sit back quietly or resign herself to futility that one person could not facilitate the drastic changes that were needed among her people. Rather, she began a lifelong fight as an Indian health care advocate for change.

During 1930-1960 Susie would travel throughout the United States visiting reservations and assessing the difficulties facing the American Indian. Her investigations revealed many more injustices. In particular, it became evident that many seriously ill Navajo children were literally dying on their mother's backs as the women walked as many as 20 miles toward the nearest hospital, seeking care for their child.

Susie joined state health advisory boards and quickly made a name for herself as an advocate for the Native American Indian. She was also appointed to the Montana Advisory Committee on Vocational Education. Susie's wit and open candor would open many doors for her and earn her the respect of many political leaders.

In 1929, Susie Walking Bear married Tom Yellowtail, a Crow religious and tribal leader. He would accompany her in the early 1950's with a group sent to Europe and the Middle East by the U.S. State Department to act as goodwill messengers promoting an understanding of the American Indian cultures.

In 1962 she received the President's Award for Outstanding Nursing Health Care.

In the 1970's Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail was appointed to the President Nixon's Council on Indian Health, Education, and Welfare and the Federal Indian Health Advisory Committee. With these appointments, Susie was given the leverage she needed for her national platform to promote the health needs of her people.

She also founded the first professional association for Native American Nurses and was instrumental in wining tribal and government funding to help Indians enter the nursing profession.

In 1978, Susie received a distinction that would mean more to her than many others: the American Indian Nurses Association named her "Grandmother of American Indian Nurses."

Susie Walking Bear Yellowtail died in 1981 leaving behind a world that was just a little bit better because she walked in it with a big heart and willing arms. She walked with pride and purpose.

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