Women’s History Month: Paying tribute to influential women of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians who have helped shape healthcare

March, Women’s History Month, presents an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate women’s remarkable contributions to society. In the healthcare system for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians (EBCI), women have played a crucial role in shaping and advancing healthcare services for their community. From its inception, the healthcare system owes much of its development to pioneering women like Lula Owl Gloyne.


Lula Leta Owl, later known as Lula Owl Gloyne, was a trailblazer in Cherokee healthcare. She started her career at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal School, where her duties included administering immunizations, providing home care, and delivering babies. By 1917 she had volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps and was a second lieutenant, the only member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to serve as an officer in World War I.


Lula returned home to the Qualla Boundary with her four children following the death of her husband to find the area had no hospitals and no doctors. She began travelling to the homes of her community members to treat the sick and injured, and to deliver babies. She began offering services to the community in a small clinic in the basement of the Agency’s administration building and became the first registered nurse of the EBCI. Lula’s dedication and advocacy were instrumental in the establishment of Cherokee’s first standalone hospital facility. In the early 1930s, she testified before Congress, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive healthcare for the Cherokee people. Thanks to her efforts, Congress agreed to fund the construction of the hospital, which opened its doors for the first time in 1936.


The hospital, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, provided a range of essential services, including surgery, outpatient care, dental care, and inpatient care. Lula’s influence continued to grow, and she was eventually appointed head nurse, a testament to her commitment to advancing healthcare for her community.


In 2022, the Cherokee Indian Hospital Foundation launched the Lula Owl Gloyne – Person of Excellence Award to continue honoring individuals who follow the standard of excellence first set by Beloved Woman Lula Owl Gloyne. The inaugural Lula Owl Gloyne Award was presented in memoriam to Lula’s granddaughter, the late Mary Wachacha in June 2022. Mary’s impact on the healthcare for the EBCI spans decades, with her impressive career with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service helping to shape the healthcare the Cherokee community knows today. Not only did Mary help to build healthcare for the EBCI, but her efforts have aided in advancing healthcare for Indigenous people across the country in her various roles with the Indian Health Service during her career such as serving as the Lead Consultant for IHS, providing leadership, training and oversight to tribal and IHS programs across the country.


Dr. Henrietta Victoria Harlan was announced as the 2023 award recipient in recognition of her leadership within the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority’s Emergency Department. Dr. Harlan served as the Nurse Manager of CIHA’s ER for 13 years. A veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, Dr. Harlan began her career in healthcare as Registered Nurse with an Associate’s Degree, later to obtain her Bachelor’s in Nursing from Western Carolina University. She earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree in 2022 from Gardner-Webb University. Before her role in the ER, Harlan worked the front line, night shift, and was a member of the ER staff.


In addition to her genuine intuition, empathy, compassion, and leadership within the ER, Dr. Harlan advocated for self-care during the COVID-19 pandemic and set an example by being the first tribal member to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.


Lula Owl Gloyne’s legacy continues to be honored today in more ways than one. In addition to the Person of Excellence Award named in her honor, her legacy lives on in the remarkable stories of other women she has inspired over the years.


Right as Lula Owl Gloyne was graduating from the nursing program at Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia as the first Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indian Registered Nurse in 1916, Virginia Sneed Dixon was born in 1919. Virginia Sneed Dixon was a young Cherokee nurse from the Qualla Boundary when she joined the US Army nurse corps to fight fascism and promote democracy around the world. Despite facing racial discrimination as a child, she volunteered for overseas duty in World War II and during the Korean conflict. During World War II she requested overseas duty and was the first Cherokee nurse to serve overseas.


Virginia was born in 1919 and attended a boarding school until she graduated from 6th grade. At the time, boarding schools were used for forced assimilation. In 1938 she graduated from Cherokee High School and then from Knoxville General Hospital School of Nursing in 1941.

Following in Lula Owl Gloyne’s footsteps, Ernestine Sharon Walkingstick continued to make significant contributions to Cherokee healthcare. Born in 1937, Walkingstick graduated from nursing school and returned to the Qualla Boundary to become the Director of Community Health Nursing. She established the first clinic for the Cherokee population in Robbinsville, North Carolina, and initiated and operated the Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat clinics at the Cherokee Indian Hospital.


Walkingstick’s dedication to her community extended beyond her professional role. She was actively involved in numerous professional and community volunteer activities, including founding the region’s first domestic violence shelter and raising funds for the Cherokee Children’s Home.

While March is identified as a time to recognize the historical accomplishments women are credited for, the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority is fortunate to continue to be lead by women who are considered innovators in their own right – dedicated to ensuring the prosperity of the next seven generation by sharing their time and talents to continue actively shaping the healthcare system for the EBCI. Two examples of such extraordinary women can be found on the hospital’s current Governing Board in Dr. Frances Owl-Smith and Dr. Carmaleta Littlejohn Monteith.

Dr. Owl-Smith made history as the second member of the Eastern Band Cherokee Indians and the very first female member — to become a physician. She attended medical school as a mature student, inspired to set a good example for her young children, and has shaped her career in medicine to accommodate the needs of family life and fulfil her professional ambitions at the same time.


With the help of a scholarship from the Indian Health Service, as a wife and mother of three, Dr. Owl-Smith began studying at Western Carolina University just a few years shy of turning 30 years old. After graduating summa cum laude, she was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, and in the summer of 1983, she moved with her husband and children to Chapel Hill. In 1987, Frances Owl-Smith received her doctor of medicine degree, become the first women in the history of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to do so.

Another remarkable woman at the forefront of shaping the history of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is Dr. Carmaleta Littlejohn Monteith, earning the distinguished title of Beloved Woman, Dr. Monteith continues to advocate for advancements in both education and healthcare for Indigenous Populations. Dr. Monteith began her college education at the University of Utah before transferring home to Western Carolina University where she graduated in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in science education. When she graduated from WCU, Dr. Monteith was in the 5.8 percent of graduates identified to be women and was one of the only 2,000 Native Americans of any gender to be enrolled in college.


With the help of a scholarship through the National Science Foundation, Dr. Monteith enrolled in Emory University to complete their Master of Education program. She forged a fervent passion for reading and learning and decided to enter the school’s Institute of Liberal Arts to study history and literature. She graduated with her Master’s Degree in 1961 and later went on to secure her PH.D. in American Studies. Dr. Monteith’s academic publications were centered around native issues, specifically in the realm of health and science, advancing the research and understanding of Indigenous healthcare around the country. Dr. Monteith continues to shape healthcare in the community, serving as the chair of the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority Governing Board in addition to dozens of other boards and committees geared toward community service for the EBCI, leaving a lasting impact on the community.


As we celebrate Women’s History Month, let us recognize that this list is by no means intended to be complete or comprehensive, instead it merely scratches the surface of the immeasurable influence so many incredible women have had forming the healthcare system for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians. Their tireless efforts and dedication have helped improve the health and well-being of the Cherokee community for generations to come.

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