In a snapshot faded and scuffed with age, her white uniform and her smile retain their brightness, offering us clues to her spirit. “Miss Owl, our Indian RN,” the caption reads.
The young woman was Lula Owl, at her first nursing post, a very long way from home. This image, part of a small cache preserved in the Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, is the shard of a much larger but little-known story, one held tightly by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
“Men got cut up and I’d have to sew them up. Women would call on me to deliver their babies. Today it would be illegal [for an RN] to do a lot of that, but back then there was no one else.”Lula Owl, recollecting her experiences as a public health nurse in the Qualla Boundary
Lula Owl became the first Eastern Band of Cherokee nurse when she graduated in 1916 from Chestnut Hill Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia, where she received the top award for obstetrical nursing. She was among the few Native American women who were able to receive nursing credentials from non-Indian schools at that time. Admission standards upheld racial discrimination by rejecting persons of color, who were considered intellectually inferior, lazy, and morally weak. (The country’s first all-Indian school of nursing, Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing in Arizona, graduated its first class of two women in 1933.)
Owl initially worked at an Episcopal missionary school on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, soon making her mark beyond the walls of the school’s infirmary. She undertook immunization campaigns, delivered babies, and provided home care to patients in the community. Along the way, she picked up other useful skills: how to milk cows and ride horseback.
During World War I, she wanted to serve in Europe as a field nurse, but severe seasickness kept her stateside. At Camp Lewis in Washington, she served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps—the only member of her people to serve as an officer in WWI.
In the early 1920s, now married, Lula Owl Gloyne returned home to Cherokee, N.C., in the Qualla Boundary. Covering about 100 square miles in the southern Appalachian mountains, the Qualla Boundary is the present-day home of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who exist as a sovereign nation.
The standard of living in the Qualla Boundary were deplorable in every metric, from housing to education to health care. The town of Cherokee had neither a hospital nor a full-time doctor. Lula Owl Gloyne began to provide most of the health care for the people on the Qualla Boundary, reaching patients by horse or ox cart. Left to her own devices in remote areas, “I’d just have to do what had to be done,” she recalled decades later. “Men got cut up and I’d have to sew them up. Women would call on me to deliver their babies. Today it would be illegal [for an RN] to do a lot of that, but back then there was no one else.”
And no one else was better qualified to try to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs to build a hospital for the Cherokee people. In 1934, she traveled to Washington, D.C., and did just that. The new hospital opened in 1937 and offered badly needed surgical, outpatient, dental and inpatient care. Gloyne was appointed head nurse, though she continued to see patients wherever she was needed. With savings from her Indian Health Service salary, she bought a horse to make travel easier. Later, the government bought her a car.
That first Cherokee Hospital operated for nearly 80 years, until a new, $83 million health-care facility opened in 2015 to serve people in the Qualla Boundary.
Gloyne was instrumental in convincing younger generations of Cherokee women to enter the health-care field. Historians note that, in her own way, she was able to claim an education at Chestnut Hill and learn the ways of Western medicine without diluting her Cherokee identity—or compromising her ability to work with more traditional Cherokees.
She is honored as a Beloved Woman by the Eastern Band of Cherokees for her unique contributions to her community. Strong and independent, Gloyne was also known for her quiet generosity. “She taught us that what we had was not important,” said her granddaughter, Mary Wachacha. “What was important is that we look after other people, give back to other people.”
Interested to learning more? We recommend and gratefully acknowledge African American and Cherokee Nurses in Appalachia, a History, 1900-1965, by Phoebe Ann Pollitt, from which this article is drawn.
This Flashback Friday brought to you by the Eleanor Crowder Bjoring Center for Nursing Historical Inquiry, which was established at UVA in 1991 to support historical scholarship in nursing. Dedicated to the preservation and study of nursing history, the Bjoring Center collects historical materials, promotes nursing history scholarship, and disseminates historical research findings.