Profiles in Nursing
Nancy Skenandore, Native American Role Model
Nancy Cornelius Skenandore, 1861-1908
Not all precedent-setting nurses have left a well-documented record of their accomplishments.
Unlike Florence Nightingale or Dorothea Dix, these nurses worked in obscurity. Sometimes their contributions to the profession were important but not spectacular. Still, what they did was significant to the progress of nursing. Additionally, when events are not well documented, it is easy for various and even disputed claims to arise.
For instance, Susie Yellowtail is often recognized at the first registered nurse of American Indian descent — the American Nurses Association honors her this way in the ANA Hall of Fame. But other contenders for the honor include Elizabeth Sadoques Mason and her sister Maude Sadoques, both Abenaki Indians who worked in the northeast.
The best way to describe what Nancy Skenandore did is to say she was the first Native American to train as a nurse. She was able to achieve this distinction at a time when most still lived on reservations and received very little formal education, much less professional preparation. It was a time of boarding schools for tribal children — education mixed with intense efforts to assimilate the children into the larger society.
Skenandore was born on a reservation just southwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin. She was a member of the Oneida tribe, which had been forcibly moved from New York in 1823. The tribe was one of the six great members of the Iroquois League. Among other distinctions, the Oneida fought on the side of the Colonials during the War of Independence, and it was Oneida tribesman who traveled 400 miles on foot to bring corn to feed the starving soldiers at Valley Forge in 1777-78. Her name Skenandore derives from Shenandoah, one of the tribe’s greatest leaders.
Skenandore was first educated at the Indian School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the first of the off-reservation boarding schools that haunted Indian life. It was to become a controversial model for those that followed. She then attended the Hartford Training School for Nurses, graduating in October of 1890. For a while she remained in Connecticut, and, like most new graduates of the time, spent time in private duty nursing.
Eventually she returned to Wisconsin and began work at the Oneida Mission Hospital. The hospital was part of the federal government’s effort to provide care closer to home for Native Americans. Since the hospital had no resident physician much of the time, Skenandore shouldered tremendous responsibility for the well-being of her patients and had influence far beyond the confines of the hospital itself. After about five short years, she married and left formal nursing. In 1908 she died of cancer and is buried in the Hobart Oneida Indian Cemetery.
Why is it important to know about Nancy Cornelius Skenandore when so little is documented, and what she did seems today like an ordinary thing? When someone is a first, she or he becomes an example or model to follow. A door opens and others see a possibility where before there was nothing.
Not that many Indians have followed in Skenandore’s footsteps. Native Americans are the most underrepresented minority in the nursing profession — 0.3% or just over 9,000 — despite multiple efforts to encourage recruitment and retention. Their not wishing to leave their tribe is seen as one of the primary reasons. But one wonders: why must this be a hurdle rather than an opportunity?
Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.