A STONE FOR EVERY JOURNEY
Traveling the Life of Elinor Gregg, R.N.
I SAID I WOULD GO
When I said I would go, the die was cast, and I’ve never been sorry. I wired them on October 19, 1922, that I would go, and I left Boston on the 26th in my open Ford runabout. Today, November 15th, I’m at the Winner Hotel, Winner, South Dakota. I’ve just finished my breakfast and am waiting for the stage to Rosebud.
We struck wet weather in Saint Paul and it got wetter and wetter until we were going through such fierce mud the last 40 miles that I put up the car at Bridgewater, South Dakota and came the remaining 200 miles by train and stage. It cost quite a lot but has been worth it in seeing the country and riding with the natives.
This is the life! The prairies are lovely white with a thin layer of snow and yellow grass sticking up through. The hay is piled up and shivering cows and horses are grazing or have rubbed the snow off the hay and are clustered on the lee side of the pile. Wisps of white clouds float high in the blue sky and I can see the whole big bowl of it instead of just a strip. The buttes and the sky blend in the distance. I’m not quite sure whether I’m looking at clouds or mountains. I like the looks of this country so well that I think I’ll take up a homestead claim and live out here three years. I haven’t seen the Indians yet, just a few of their shacks and tents when we were driving in.
My companion last night in Winner was a woman who cooked in White River, South Dakota for six years while she was proving her homestead claim. Of French or rather Luxemburg parentage, Miss Didier speaks French, German, English, and some Indian. She weighs 279 pounds and knows everybody she sees on the road. She lives with her “maw” down in Nebraska.
When we got into this hotel the desk clerk asked us whether we would like a room with a double bed or two three-quarter beds. I voted 3/4 so fast that Miss Didier never got a chance to express an opinion. I know I’m heavy myself but I couldn’t see the poetry (as Alan calls it) of having a 279 pound stranger in my bunk. I perhaps should explain that the clerk said he hadn’t enough rooms for us each to have one.
The land I see from the stage en route from Winner to Rosebud is fenced, mostly by being planted with kafir and corn, and windbreak trees around the houses and barns. It looks like a typical “hard scrabble” economy laid out north and south and east and west, in checkerboard parallel dirt roads. The main traveled roads are graveled and scraped. Although more wind-swept and with longer treks between gas stations, the country reminds me of the Colorado of my childhood.
My first view of Rosebud is from the top of the hill where the Sioux chief, Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) is buried. A neat, simple layout of red brick and white frame buildings with outlying corals and log huts sits in a sheltered natural bowl. The low hills surrounding The Agency or reservation headquarters fold gently into one another, eventually rising and giving way to rolling plains. Delicate wild pink roses will carpet these hills in June. Eight inches of snow fell yesterday. So today they’re a study in white, dotted with evergreen yuccas whose brown flower stalks mark their position.
It’s nearly eleven a.m. when the stage pulls up at the hotel, a big, two story white clapboard square with a wide wrap-around front porch and a lean-to addition. My first order of business is to find Agency Superintendent James H. McGregor. A desk clerk directs me to The Office, a two story, red brick veneer building that, like the hotel, helps form the quadrangle.
Turning left in front of the hotel, I walk along the shoveled cement sidewalk to the far end of the rectangular snow-covered lawn with its flagpole and irrigation ditches. Someone has expended considerable effort for summer greenery and shade trees. In less than five minutes I’m standing in front of The Office. A square narrow tower protrudes from the left side of the building. The cupola on top of this wing houses a bell. Like my own recent journey, the cupola’s weather vane points steadily westward. For a moment I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. But it doesn’t matter. I’m here.
Taking a deep breath, I step up onto the porch. I open the front door onto a narrow hallway lined with benches filled with Indians. The men are dressed in blue denim jeans, shirts, jackets, boots, and broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hats. The women wear Mother Hubbard dresses and are wrapped in heavy shawls.
Like a jam-packed physician’s office, the hallway holds humanity in all stages--toddlers, school age children, parents, grandparents, young men and women, old men and women--not talking much. Many of the old men are smoking carved pipes decorated with feathers. The smoke smells not quite like tobacco. The aromatic fragrance of dried red willow mixed with Bull Durham nearly covers up all other odors, including skunk, which the old timers are not above eating.
I carefully navigate around several cuspidors as I edge my way to Superintendent McGregor’s office. He’s expecting me today. I telephoned yesterday from Winner, not knowing that in South Dakota Indian country promptness doesn’t have the sacred value that it has in Massachusetts.
As soon as Superintendent McGregor sees me he smiles. He pushes back from his paper-strewn desk and walks over to greet me. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he says warmly. “I hope the trip from Bridgewater wasn’t too tiring. Please, sit down.”
No sooner do we exchange pleasantries than the noon dinner bell sounds. On our way back to the hotel where I’ll be eating my meals, Mr. McGregor explains that the Rosebud Reservation was created 33 years ago in 1889. But the Rosebud Agency was established 44 years ago in 1878 for the Brulé Sioux under Chief Spotted Tail. The US Army was responsible for administering the agency. The stockade that surrounded the agency in 1878 is now gone.
Communities or districts sprouted up all over the reservation. Without formal boundaries, they were named for tribal leaders such as Two Strike and He Dog, or for physical features such as Little White River and Oak Creek. Eventually these districts became the sites of issue stations, “boss” or district farmers’ residences, schools, and field matrons’ stations.
As we climb the hotel steps, Mr. McGregor tells an Indian man to take my bags to my room in the employee’s quarters. Opening the front door of the hotel, we step into the reception area, which gives way to a corridor. We pass a line of black coat hooks sticking out from the wall and squeeze by a narrow table with a kitchen chair at each end. We come first to a small parlor furnished with rocking chairs and a pump organ, and then finally to the dining room.
Almost immediately Mrs. Brown, the hotel manager, emerges from the lean-to kitchen, wiping her flushed, sweaty face with her apron. “This is Miss Elinor Gregg, the nurse the Red Cross has sent us,” Mr. McGregor explains.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Nurse Gregg. Will you be having lunch?” asks Mrs. Brown. Twenty-eight cents, I learn, will also be the price of each meal ticket.
When Mr. McGregor spies Mrs. Cross, a clerk who does stenographic work for him, he asks her to show me over to my room in employee’s quarters after I eat. Turning to me he says, “I’m going home to dinner. When you get settled, come back to the office. I’ll introduce you to the office force and then we’ll talk.”
Now I’m on my own. Mrs. Brown leads me past occupied tables for two, four, and eight, to an empty table for four. She then hurries back to the kitchen. Sitting in elegant solitude, I notice the iron pipes holding up the crossbeams of the ceiling. Two men come late for dinner. One is Mrs. Cross’s husband.
The diners look me over furtively. None of them speaks, not even Mrs. Cross, and I must admit, neither do I. I do smile at them though when I can catch their eye.
I wonder what I look like to them. I’m 36 years old and 5 feet 7 1/2 inches, with blue eyes (sparkling I’m told) and a florid complexion. My reddish hair is parted in the middle and pulled loosely back away from my face. In my gray chambray overseas Red Cross uniform, I feel like neither fish nor fowl. I certainly don’t feel Bostonian, and I don’t think that I talk like a New Englander. I don’t know why I think my dining room companions would think this, especially since none of us is saying anything, but I do.
About one thing I’m certain. Many of the diners know why I’m here and some know who I am. President Harding appointed Charles H. Burke Commissioner of Indian Affairs in March 1921. When he visited the reservation approximately a month ago, he spoke about a variety of issues, including health care. He told the Rosebud Indians that he hoped to see a good hospital on every reservation, and enough physicians and nurses to take care of all the sick. He would also like to replace the field matrons with trained nurses. Then he explained about the survey and demonstration work that three graduate nurses on loan from the American Red Cross would be doing. He told the gathering that one of the nurses would be assigned here.
Even if no one heard Commissioner Burke, my coming would not have been a surprise. A letter from him to Superintendent McGregor in late October announced my arrival, and news travels fast among agency personnel.
Pa Brown soon serves my dinner of gray boiled beef and yellow cabbage. While eating, I decide that tomorrow I’ll try to get acquainted with the other diners. For breakfast I’ll choose the big table and then can venture to say, “May I trouble you to pass the butter?”
After I finish my coffee and crumb pie, a sort of custard fortified with bread crumbs, I wait in the entry hall for Mrs. Cross. She introduces me to her husband; he’s a financial clerk at The Agency. They live in three rooms on the ground floor of the red brick employee’s quarters near The Office. Walking up the stairs to my room, Mrs. Cross tells me that no one else is on this floor, so I’ll have the standard bathroom all to myself.
I don’t know what I’m expecting when I open the door to my room, but it isn’t black and tan striped wallpaper with very large pink roses! In only a few minutes I find all kinds of faces in these flowers. As soon as the wallpaper recedes from my vision, I see a fair-sized room with two windows, one facing east, one facing south, and a round black stove. A double bed, a rocking chair, and a kitchen table with two straight-backed chairs are more than adequate. I doubt that I’ll be spending much time in my room anyway. The wall calendar has only a semblance of a picture, which given the design of the wallpaper is enough.
I unpack my toothbrush and night things and then turn my attention to the bedding. All seven blankets are olive drab army surplus and heavy as lead. At least I can look forward to my own bedding, if and when my trunk arrives, and in the meantime I won’t be cold. I check the wood and coal box and stoke the soft coal stove before I leave.
Several Indians are standing outside The Office. I smile and say “Hello” as I pass. Walking into the narrow crowded hallway for the second time today, I now see that The Office has no reception room. Indians waiting for attention sit on the benches in the hallway. When the hallway becomes too crowded, the Indians move outside. They must get very cold this time of year.
Superintendent McGregor wants me to meet the agency staff--15 clerks, a telephone operator, a farmer, a lawyer--and more. We begin with Chief Clerk F.A. Coe. Superintendent McGregor’s second in command is responsible for the general administration of the reservation, including maintenance of the physical plant. As the Special Disbursing Agent, he makes all the payments associated with running the reservation as well as those from individual Indian accounts. He supervises the interpreters, the Indian police, and the general clerical and accounting forces. Not surprisingly, this thin, little gray man looks worried.
To one and all Mr. McGregor proudly introduces the public health nurse on loan from the American Red Cross. “She’ll be here and at Pine Ridge a year,” he says. “As part of her work she’ll probably visit each Indian home under my jurisdiction, providing care in many cases. Her nursing assistance will directly benefit the agency’s health program. And, the results of her work may help convince Congress of the need for expert health workers among the Indians.”
Each employee smiles when we’re introduced and they’re all politely interested in my work. I smile, too, and tell them I look forward to getting acquainted.
Mr. McGregor wants me to meet one other person. We walk to the opposite end of the quadrangle, cross the road to the left of the general store, and go around the corner. Standing in front of the garage, wiping his greasy hands on a rag, is George Andrus. “This man can fix anything,” says Mr. McGregor. “He’s an expert mechanic. He does all the intricate mechanical work and car repairing at the agency. He keeps our cars going despite their age and our limited funds.”
“How was your trip?” George asks, his eyes twinkling. “I hear you had to leave your car in Bridgewater because of the mud.”
“You heard right, George. I did. I hadn’t seen mud like that for quite a while. But up until then the roads had been pretty good and I didn’t have any car trouble. It rained a few days, but most of the time it was warm and sunny.”
George is too polite to ask, but is wondering, I’m sure, if I made the trip alone. I don’t mention that Richard and I traveled together from Chicago to Sioux Falls. He didn’t drive, but I surely appreciated his company. As I watched him board the train for Chicago, I felt both sad and excited. I’d miss him and his companionship, but I was eager to be on my own in Indian country.
Sensing that I’ve finished, Mr. McGregor pushes his glasses up on his nose. “Take good care of her, George.” He says he will and I believe him.
During the short walk back to The Office, Mr. McGregor points out the Indian Day School and the county public school. “Between fourteen and twenty pupils go to each of these schools,” he explains.
With introductions over, at least for now, Superintendent McGregor assures me of all possible assistance in carrying out my work. “I’ll give you the medical supplies and surgical dressings you need,” he says, “and I’ll also provide you with stenographic services. Commissioner Burke has authorized me to provide gasoline and oil for your car free of charge from the Government supply. George Andrus will make minor repairs.”
I’ll make reports to Superintendent McGregor and also send two copies of my monthly reports, both narrative and statistical, directly to Elizabeth G. Fox in Washington, D.C. She’ll forward a copy to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Miss Fox, National Director of the Public Health Nursing Service at the American National Red Cross, and Commissioner Burke cooperated closely to arrange this project.
Comfortably seated in his office, Superintendent McGregor asks me about my plan of work. “Getting to know Rosebud is my first priority,” I explain.
I know that the health of Indians on reservations has long been a problem. Tuberculosis and trachoma, a contagious eye disease, are most prevalent. Unsanitary living conditions contribute to both. Lack of funding restricts medical care largely to hospitals. Preventive work is practically nonexistent. I’ve heard all of this, but I want to observe the conditions at Rosebud firsthand. I’ll learn about the people, their way of life, and their health problems by inspecting the day and boarding schools, getting to know the field matrons and their work, meeting more of the agency personnel, touring the agency hospital, conferring with the physician, and visiting the Indians in their homes.
Mr. McGregor thinks my plan sound. In keeping with it, he invites me to a conference on Friday with the various district farmers and field matrons. No sooner do I accept this invitation than he asks me to spend a week with him in his office as he takes care of agency business. “We’ll have a chance to get better acquainted and you’ll learn how the work at the agency is conducted,” he says. I’m pleased that Mr. McGregor suggests this because I’ve done no reading about the Indian Service. I want to form my own opinions.
A bald man limping into the office follows a knock at the door. My guess is that the limp is the result of a repaired clubfoot. Superintendent McGregor introduces William R. Eddleman. He doesn’t seem very cordial as he joins us.
Superintendent McGregor explains that as the agency physician, Doctor Eddleman has charge of all activities relating to health and sanitation, including the work of the field matrons. In addition to being in charge of the agency hospital, he looks after the general health of the Indians on the reservation. He visits the boarding schools and the day schools and makes sure that the children are inoculated against smallpox and other contagious diseases. He reports directly to the agency superintendent.
Doctor Eddleman apologizes as he stifles a yawn. “It’s been a long day already,” he says. “After seeing patients at the agency hospital early this morning, I drove fifteen miles to the Boarding School in Mission, came back to Rosebud, drove thirty miles to Black Pipe, and then came here.”
“Is this a typical day?” I ask.
“More or less.”
“Do you ever meet yourself coming and going?”
Superintendent McGregor smiles and tells me that for the past six years Doctor Eddleman’s been doing the work of two doctors. Realizing that I don’t know about medical care for the Indians, Superintendent McGregor explains. The reservation has positions for two full-time physicians, a hospital service physician and a home or field service physician. The field service position’s been vacant for six years. So Doctor Eddleman’s been providing both hospital and home care for nearly 6,000 Sioux. Assistant doctors come and go. One left six weeks ago, and his replacement won’t be here for at least another three weeks.
A contract physician in Hamill, 90 miles northeast of The Agency, makes calls at the extreme eastern end of the reservation. This physician, who’s in private practice, has an agreement with the Indian Service. He’ll make a specific number of professional visits to the Indians and will also perform other medical services for them.
As I listen to Superintendent McGregor describe my proposed plan of work, I’m sure that Doctor Eddleman is wondering what I’ll be able to do to improve the health of the Indians. Because I’m a Red Cross nurse on loan to the Indian Service, and not a nurse of the Indian Service, Doctor Eddleman is not responsible for the success of my work. Nevertheless, he begins to warm. We discuss my need for standing orders that will let me care for patients with certain medical conditions without contacting him.
“If you’re going to be making home visits, I think you’d better fill your public health nursing bag with an ample supply of aspirin for rheumatism and headache; sulphur ointment for scabies and other skin diseases; Argyol (mild silver protein) for inflamed eyes; and oil of wintergreen for rheumatism. You’d also better carry green soap and corrosive sublimate, a disinfectant; wild cherry cough syrup; and Epsom salts, a laxative.” I write the orders and he signs them.
Doctor Eddleman is eager to have me visit the agency hospital and suggests that we go now. But it’s late, and I prefer going tomorrow morning. He acquiesces, but seems none too pleased.
Soon the five o’clock bell rings and everyone in The Office files out, including Superintendent McGregor and myself. The typical working hours are eight a.m. until five p.m., six days a week, with an hour off between 12 and 1 for dinner. Mr. McGregor has invited me to meet his family before I go to the hotel for supper. The superintendent’s red brick home with its white post and cross-rail fence helps form the quadrangle. The wing on the left front corner of the house balances the tower rooms on the right front corner. A porch shelters the front door and the three large windows of the downstairs tower room.
Mr. McGregor introduces me to his wife Nella and their children, John, Jean, and Virginia. The children’s eagerness and conversation, combined with their mother’s warm greeting, make me feel welcome immediately. In contrast to Mr. Mac, who is short and rotund, Nella is thin and wiry. Now devoted to her home and family, she taught school for three years in the Philippines shortly after they were married. Mr. McGregor visited the schools in a supervisory capacity.
In 1898 when the United States declared war with Spain, Mr. McGregor withdrew from the teacher’s college he was attending in Indiana to enlist with the American forces. He served throughout the war and then worked at the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C. before he and Nella went to the Philippines. When they returned, he transferred to the Indian Service.
I look forward to getting to know the McGregors, but keep my visit brief because their supper is on the stove. Mine of homemade bread, beans, squash, raisin pie, fresh milk, and coffee waits at the hotel. But if I want my room to be warm, I’ll have to stoke the stove before I eat.
It’s dark when I leave the hotel. I stop on the way to my room to watch the stars twinkling in a cloudless sapphire sky that seems never ending. I’m glad to be here and working again.
Usually I’m a night owl, but not tonight. The Agency has electricity only until ten-thirty p.m. and I have neither candles nor lamp. Oh well, an early night is probably good. Today’s been busy and all learning. Somehow I’m sure this will be the rule, not the exception.