Strong Hearts & Healing Hands:
Southern California Indians and Field Nurses, 1920–1950
by Clifford E. Trafzer
In 1924, the United States began a bold program in public health. The Indian Service of the United States hired its first nurses to work among Indians living on reservations. This corps of white women were dedicated to improving Indian health. In 1928, the first field nurses arrived in the Mission Indian Agency of Southern California. These nurses visited homes and schools, providing public health and sanitation information regarding disease causation and prevention.
Over time, field nurses and Native people formed a positive working relationship that resulted in the decline of mortality from infectious diseases. Many Native Americans accepted and used Western medicine to fight pathogens, while also continuing Indigenous medicine ways. Nurses helped control tuberculosis, measles, influenza, pneumonia, and a host of gastrointestinal sicknesses. In partnership with the community, nurses quarantined people with contagious diseases, tested for infections, and tracked patients and contacts. Indians turned to nurses and learned about disease prevention. With strong hearts, Indians eagerly participated in the tuberculosis campaign of 1939–40 to x-ray tribal members living on twenty-nine reservations. Through their cooperative efforts, Indians and health-care providers decreased deaths, cases, and misery among the tribes of Southern California.