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The Spanish-American War Nurses

All were members of the Lakota Tribe


Last updated 1/19/2014 at 3:46pm

K.B. Schaller

Left to right: Sister Josephine Two Bears, Sister Ella Clarke, Sister Bridget Fleets, and Sister Anthony Bordeaux (who died in Cuba and was given a military funeral).

As the 1800s drew to an end, tribal women began to enter the armed forces as nurses. In 1898, the Daughters of the American Revolution Hospital Corps contracted four Native American Indian Catholic nuns as nurses to serve in the Spanish-American War.

Beginning in the spring of 1898 and lasting fewer than four months, it was the first war involving the United States in which nurses were assigned as a special, quasi-military unit.

All four Native American nurses were members of the Lakota Tribe from Fort Berthold, South Dakota where they worked for the War Department.

Initially, they had no formal medical training. Since 1895, however, they had received practical training in nearby homes and hospitals under the guidance of Reverend Francis M. Craft. A fiery missionary of Mohawk descent, he was founder of their order through the Congregation of American Sisters of Fort Pierre, South Dakota.

When the war with Spain began in the spring of 1898, the four Native American nurses-Mother Bridget (Anna) Pleets, Sister Joseph(ine) Two-Bears, Mother Anthony (Susan) Bordeaux, and Sister Ella Clarke-left the American Sisters of Fort Pierre to serve in Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Florida.

From there they were sent to Camp Columbia in Havana, Cuba where there was a high mortality rate from infectious disease. Because they were Native American Indians, it was assumed they had "expertise" in working under less than immaculate conditions. But it would be disease that would claim the life of Mother Anthony.

Because the soldiers loved the Native American nuns who put their own lives at risk to nurse them back to health, they mourned greatly when they heard of the death of Mother Anthony.

Some in administrative positions, however, disliked the nuns because they were not members of an "approved" order. Others harbored lingering hatred against all Indians because of the Indian wars, and the "double standard" of honoring white and non-white fallen heroes was never more clearly demonstrated than after Mother Anthony's death. Although she died as a result of disease contracted in the line of duty, it took Father Craft's insistence before she was buried with military honors. Even then, she was not buried in Arlington National Cemetery (Virginia) alongside other fallen soldiers. Instead, she was buried at Camp Egbert, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.

Furious at the U.S. military's blatant ignoring of Mother Anthony' ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty, Father Craft fired off a letter of protest to the State Department. Controversy grew. His religious order fell apart and the remaining nuns returned to the reservation and resumed their lives as laypersons.

Anna Pleets married Joe Dubray and worked as a midwife. She was given a military funeral after her death in 1948 but was buried at St. Peter's Cemetery in Fort Yates, North Dakota. To the end of her life, she treasured an apron upon which dying soldiers had written their names and addresses so that she could write to their relatives.

Ella Clark married Joe Hodgkiss, and her last years were spent in the Old Soldiers Home in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Josephine Two Bears remained in Cuba and ran an orphanage until 1901, and then returned to the United States. She married Joachim Hairychin, but died in childbirth in 1909.

Although their Order never resumed, during their time of service, the four nurses exemplified the Native warrior traditions: Strength. Honor. Pride. Devotion. Wisdom.

A version of this article is included in 100+ Native American Women Who Changed the World, by KB Schaller, scheduled for fall publication, 2013.

Sources: Answers website, How Long Did the Spanish-American War Last?; Arlington National Cemetery website, Spanish-American War Nurses Monument; Ault, Jon, The Spanish-American War Centennial website, Native Americans in the Spanish-American War; Blogger News Network, Reyes, Nancy, The Native American Nurses of the Spanish-American War; The Native American Nurses of the Spanish-American War; Native American Women Veterans; .; Spanish-American War Nurses:

KB Schaller (Cherokee/Seminole heritage), journalist, novelist, historical researcher, is author of Gray Rainbow Journey, winner, USA Book News National Best Books Award and a Florida Publishers President's Best Books Award; Journey by the Sackcloth Moon, sequel (OakTara Publishers).

She lives in the Miami-Dade/ Broward County areas of South Florida.


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