|Dr. Clarence Salsbury, a Presbyterian missionary and physician, and his wife Cora, a trained nurse, arrived at the Navajo Indian Reservation in 1927, to find a lack of trained medical professionals combined with inadequate facilities to treat the numerous Navajo patients in the area. The Salsburys were determined to build a modern medical facility, and Sage Memorial Hospital, named for Margaret O. Sage, the primary financial contributor, was opened in 1930. According to historian Robert Trennert, "Although the hospital promised to improve the quality of health care on the reservation, its main goal was religious indoctrination and conversion. Salsbury wished to lure the Indians away from 'old ignorant, superstitious medicine men,' to guide them 'out of heathenism,' and to induce them to accept 'the Lord as their Savior.'" Believing that Navajo patients would respond better to nurses who could communicate with them and would be able to cross the cultural divide, Salsbury also began a nursing program for young Native women.
Resistance arose within the Navajo community. Tribal members, uncomfortable with young women leaving home for careers, were also concerned that nursing students would lose their ties to their families and customs. Indian commissioner John Collier was critical of the program because, according to Trennert, it imposed "Christianity on Indians as the price of medical care."
Regardless, many young women were eager to sign up and make the needed sacrifice in order to help their communities. The three-year course was rigorous and met all the requirements of the American College of Surgeons, unlike other Indian Affairs programs that were unaccredited and only trained women to work as attendants at hospitals. The program also offered unprecedented professional opportunities to young women on the reservations.
On November 29, 1933, two Navajo women, Ruth Henderson and Charlotte Adele Slivers, became the first graduates of the nursing program. A dormitory had opened the previous year, allowing students from around the country to attend. Although most graduates were from Native tribes, non-Whites, including Hispanics and Asians, also attended. White applicants were declined admission because, as Salsbury explained, "I was well aware that Anglo-Saxon women could take nurses' training almost anywhere, and our school was for others."
Graduates played vital roles when they returned to their reservations. Elizabeth Hamilton, the first Haida woman to enter professional nursing, returned to Alaska to undertake pioneering medical work among her people. Esther Curley graduated in 1935, despite the opposition of her father who was an important healer in the Navajo community. Esther told her audience at commencement: "A Navajo nurse has a greater opportunity than a White nurse because she understands her people and their language."
During World War II, graduates served in the Army Nurse Corps Reserves. After the war, nursing education increasingly relied on the facilities provided by major universities, rather than local hospitals, and the Sage Memorial Hospital closed its nursing program in 1951. Despite its controversial methods, the nursing program proved that young Native women were fully capable of the rigorous demands of modern medicine while still remaining devoted to their people.
The Sage Memorial Hospital School of Nursing, located in Ganado at the intersection of Highways 264 and 191, is now a National Historic Landmark.
For more information, see Robert Trennert, "Sage Memorial Hospital and the Nation's First All-Indian School of Nursing." Journal of Arizona History, Winter 2003.
Sage Memorial Hospital building, courtesy of the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records, # 90-0020. Nurses and patients at Sage Memorial Hospital, courtesy of the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records, #93-9902.