The Indian School for Practical Nursing

By: Kelsey Noel

Several weeks ago, the Still Picture Branch received a particularly fascinating accession when a number of boxes arrived filled with records from the Indian Health Service. On any given day around here it is almost impossible not to encounter something fantastic and fascinating. Yet every now and then, something of particular interest stands out – and this time it was photos of the Indian School of Practical Nursing.

In 1935, the Kiowa Nurse Aide School was started in Lawton, Oklahoma. Although the first several decades of the 20th century saw the idea of nursing programs for Native American women begin to take root, the Kiowa School is seen as the Indian Service’s first substantive, structured approach to develop such a training program. Grown from an earlier (and quite successful) initiative to provide Native American women with a five-week program in nursing and health as applicable to households and communities, the Kiowa School consisted of nine-months of academic courses. Expanded to a twelve-month program in 1951, it became known as the Kiowa School of Practical Nursing that same year. Following the school’s 1955 move to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the name was changed once more to the Indian School of Practical Nursing. The school would maintain this moniker until it closed in 1974. The curriculum of the school was quite diverse – subjects included everything from dietetics to psychology. It was so successful that in 1952 a second Indian School for Practical Nursing was established in Alaska, but this school was not nearly as popular and closed after only nine years.

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Although the Kiowa School might be considered the most successful of early opportunities for Native Americans to train in the medical field, it was certainly not the only one. There were other nursing schools, such as the Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing which operated from 1930-1951.  The Indian Service also developed a scholarship program which enabled Native American high school graduates to study nursing at schools and hospitals which were not specifically dedicated to training Native Americans. Opportunities to study as dental technicians were also available, and by the 1970’s options were seriously diversifying – for example, the IHS School of Certified Laboratory Assistants and School of Radiologic Technology.

The Indian Health Service records received in this particular accession contain very little on other training opportunities, however, and indeed even records relating to the Indian School of Practical Nursing are limited. As is often the case, they provide only a tiny peek into a larger story. To make sense of such small glimpses it is usually necessary to investigate further – and sometimes the records are so fascinating it is just about impossible not to. So, if you are interested in researching this topic further, these records will be available upon request in the Still Pictures Branch very soon as part of The National Archives Record Group 513. Additional records can be found in the National Library of Medicine’s Indian Schools of Practical Nursing Collection.

Resources consulted for this blog include “American Indians At Risk,” (2014); “Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia,” (2014); “Caring and Curing: A History of the Indian Health Service,” (2009); “The Extraordinary Book of Native American Lists,” (2012), and “If You Knew the Conditions: A Chronical of the Indian Medical Service and American Indian Health Care, 1908-1955,” (2008).

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