How Four Nuns Became the First Native American Women to Serve in the US Military

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November 28, 2023
U.S. Army nurses pose for an undated photo during the Spanish-American War.

Originally published by The 19th.

In an old black and white photograph, four nuns flank a priest at a U.S. military hospital in Havana, Cuba. Their severe expressions speak to the harsh conditions they had faced during the Spanish-American War — from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota to military camps in Florida, Georgia and eventually Cuba. 

The four Lakota Sioux women — Mary Anthony, Mary Joseph, Mary Gertrude and Mary Bridget — were there to help care for sick and injured soldiers. They also put their stamp on history as the first known Native American women to serve in the United States military. 

Today, American Indians and Alaska Natives serve in the Armed Forces at five times the national average — with the women serving in higher concentration than any other ethnic population. Nearly 20 percent of Native service members are women, compared with 15.6 percent of all other women service members.

But as the first Native American women to serve, these nurses faced increased scrutiny and racial prejudice from military officials and the news media of the time. A handwritten note on each card recommending them for duty described the women as having “dark” coloring, being used to “severe hardships, and privations, and exposure to heat and cold” while working as missionaries on Indian land and being able to “endure safely what most nurses cannot endure,” according to the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The women were members of a small religious order of Native American women on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The initial focus of the order, founded in 1892 by Father Francis Craft, a missionary priest from New York City, was on education. Then in 1898, the United States declared war against Spain. 

Craft had a medical background. The nuns quickly received nursing training and volunteered to serve as Army nurses. When women entered religious life, it was traditional that they be given a new name, typically the name of a saint: Sister Mary Anthony, also known as Susan Bordeaux, was 31; Sister Mary Joseph, also known as Josephine Two Bears, was 31; and Sister Mary Gertrude, also known as Ella Clarke, was 28, according to military records. It is unknown how old Mother Mary Bridget, also known as Anna Pleets, was when she enlisted.

In 1898, the nuns signed contracts, which guaranteed them a monthly $30 stipend. More than six months after they volunteered, Craft and the four Lakota women were sent to their first appointment: Camp Cuba Libre in Jacksonville, Florida, where one correspondent from the Sioux City Journal wrote that the “work of the sisters here will be watched and followed with great interest.” 

Combat had ended by the time they arrived, but Camp Cuba Libre, hastily set up after facilities in Tampa grew too crowded, provided little for the group at first. They arrived to find spoiling meat, decaying fruit and inadequate amounts of bread, according to Cheryl Mullenbach’s book “Women of the Spanish-American War.” The doctors and nurses worked tirelessly to treat gun and stab wounds, cuts, bone fractures, dysentery, typhoid, malaria and yellow fever. 

They were assigned to two wards set aside specifically for measles and mumps patients — which often included about 50 sick soldiers. Sister Mary Bridget and Mother Mary Anthony covered the daytime hours, while Sisters Mary Joseph and Mary Gertrude took the night watches. 

Observers praised the women for their work. A reporter in Florida described Sister Mary Bridget as “quite young” with “an ever ready and happy smile” and “very sturdy, rugged, as if no amount of fatigue could be too much for her.” One newspaper headline in December 1898 read, “Four Redskin Sisters Who Have Done Good Work in a Southern Hospital.” 

Assumptions also informed how the women were perceived: The four Lakota nuns were “believed to be immune either simply because of their race or because they had survived yellow fever,” according to Mullenbach. The idea, she wrote, was that their “Indian blood” made them more able to withstand the poor conditions. 

The United States signed a peace treaty with Spain on December 10. But that didn’t mean the nuns’ service was ending. Officials decided that medical personnel would still be needed as American soldiers would remain in Cuba and the Philippines indefinitely. A few days after the peace treaty was signed and less than two months after they had arrived in Florida, the four nuns and Craft were transferred to Camp Onward in Savannah, Georgia. 

They didn’t stay long in Georgia as the camp was in flux. Military units were waiting to see where they would be needed; many had already left for Cuba. On December 22, the group followed, making their way to Camp Columbia in Havana. 

The group arrived in Cuba about one week before the American military occupation was officially set to take place. The Spanish military was still on its way out and there was unrest among some of the Cubans who were not on board with an American occupation. During this time, the medical professionals at camp treated Americans, Spaniards and Cubans alike. The camp, at an elevated location with a view of the sea on one side and mountains on the other, did not have water lines;  inhabitants had to trek half a mile to the nearest clean water. 

The nurses had barely gotten started when, in February 1899, they were informed that the U.S. military was terminating their contracts. The group’s standing with the Roman Catholic Church was also in question. For decades, Craft’s “eccentricities and outspokenness” kept him in constant conflict with both government and church authorities. His words and actions repeatedly threatened “to detonate the powder keg of Catholic-government relations,” according to The Catholic Historical Review

The reason for their bad standing with the Church and the end of their military contracts has been contested by various historians. According to the Lakota Times, Craft had renounced his affiliation with the Catholic Church before the war started after accusations of abuse led to his banishment from all tribal reservations. But according to the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, Craft’s order of nuns was dissolved because of false rumors started by a disgruntled former Indian Department agent who resented his termination. According to Mullenbach, this drama with the Catholic Church back home “had caught up with the priest.” 

Craft claimed that “conservative churchmen who opposed the more progressive ideas that he supported” demanded that he and the nurses should be expelled from the island, Mullenbach wrote in her book. Craft also accused an archbishop in Cuba of targeting the women because of their race and acting with “the old hatred against the Indian sisters.” Mullenbach wrote that  Craft claimed officials had also previously attempted to “send the sisters back to the Indian camps.” 

No longer under contract with the Army, the nurses and Craft decided to travel about 100 miles southwest to Pinar del Rio Province, where they volunteered at a medical facility, caring for both sick soldiers and civilians. 

“Everything went well,” Craft said, according to Mullenbach. “Cubans and Spaniards were as well pleased as Americans with the American sisters and their work as nurses and physicians among the poor.”

The nurses were welcomed in the community, even joining a local parish choir. 

“We will remain here with the army unless other means are found to drive us away,” Craft said in April 1899. 

However, within months, the situation shifted. On October 15, Mother Mary Anthony, who had caught pneumonia in Florida, succumbed to her illness and died. She was buried in the local cemetery, where she remains, with military honors, according to military records. Craft wrote of her death: “She was much beloved by the soldiers whom she had nursed back to health at the sacrifice of her own life and American soldiers mingled their tears and prayers with those of Cubans and Spaniards who loved her for her care of their orphans and sick.”  

And by December, two of the other nurses wanted to leave. 

“I want to come home because I am getting sick and very unhappy,” Sister Bridget wrote in a letter to a priest friend back in the United States, asking for help getting home. The women were in “poor health,” “not strong” and had been posted to five different hospitals in four months, according to military records. 

Sisters Gertrude and Bridget returned to North Dakota within a month. Sister Joseph, who had stayed longer with Craft in Cuba to run an orphanage, eventually joined them in 1901. 

The group’s war service, however brief, did not go overlooked in Washington. All four women were awarded the silver crosses of the Order of Spanish-American War Nurses. The U.S. House of Representatives also recognized the four Lakota nurses’ contributions to the war in February 1899. At the time, Craft wrote that the nurses had “proved what they could do with the same care white Sisters get,” according to Mullenbach. 

One patient, according to Mullenbach’s book, who had been treated by the nuns in Cuba added: “We should give our attention to the lady nurses who are in the service. They are the kindest, gentlest and most patient of creatures and deserve a world of credit from the wives and the mothers of the boys in blue, and their names and heroic deeds should be chronicled on the pages of our great, grand and glorious nation’s history.” 

But that chapter was closed. The three surviving nuns, no longer in a religious order, returned to the use of their former names, and married. Craft later moved to Pennsylvania to become a parish priest, where he stayed for nearly two decades before his death in 1920. 

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