The rich life of Lula Owl Gloyne, 1st RN and 1st World War I officer from Cherokee
BY ANNE CHESKY
When Lula Owl, the first member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) to become a registered nurse, arrived in Wakapala, South Dakota, to assume her first paid nursing position in 1916, she might have left immediately upon her arrival at the train station – if the train back east had run more than once a day.
She recalled in an oral history recorded in 1982, “I left (Cherokee, North Carolina) in July and it was so nice and beautiful here and warm. And I got to South Dakota and everything was dead. The grass was dead, nothing but old buffalo bear bushes and cactus and way off in the distance near a little stream was cotton wood trees. … There wasn’t anybody at the station and when the (station agent) finally came I said, ‘What time does the train go back east? Because I’m going back home.’”
But soon after, two women arrived to take her to the St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal School on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation; they’d had a flat tire on the way.
She fought homesickness, but soon settled into her new position, first working to make life better for the staff and children at the school and then treating illness among the general Sioux population.
St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal School, like the Cherokee Boarding School that Owl had attended on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina, was one of the many schools founded in the United States with the goal of converting Native American children to “Christian civilization.” Despite these efforts, a 2005 study found that “those who attended and lived at St. Elizabeth’s gained an education, became Christian, but did so on their terms. … They did not lose important cultural foundations which defined them as … Indian.”
(A 2001 study of 16 ECBI members who attended the Cherokee Boarding School concluded that “more often than not … (the) boarding school experience, for them personally, appeared to be ‘not all that bad.’” Still, the study continued, “it is also important to recognize that what the school did when it suppressed use of the Cherokee language, kept the children separated from their homes and families for long periods of time, and frequently treated them harshly… had far-reaching and damaging consequences in the longer term for Cherokee culture and the family unit.”)
One of Owl Gloyne’s first projects was to set up a purified drinking water system. The school was hauling water for washing, drinking, and cooking 40 miles from the Missouri River. They would strain large particles out of the water, but otherwise the water was untreated. After typhoid broke out at the school, Owl began boiling water for the students.
She recalled: “I sent to Washington for some medical things and they sent me a recipe of how I could purify the water. I used lime and sand and a few pieces of coal in the bottom of a barrel; (the school administration) had a fit when I first started it, but it was really good after it had gone through all that and was purified. A man from Washington came and tested it and said it was wonderful.”
Owl had to also gain the trust of the Souix people who lived outside the school’s boundary. Her first adult patient was an older man complaining of a terrible headache. He lived with his daughters 8 miles from the school. He had built a large wooden frame home for his Wellesley and Smith College-educated daughters “and had an interior decorator come out,” but he still preferred to live behind their house in the traditional tipi of the Souix tribe.
When Owl arrived, the man was surrounded by relatives and friends mourning his impending death. Though Owl spoke the native dialects of both the Cherokee and Catawba (her father was Cherokee and mother Catawba) as well as English, she did not speak Souix and traveled with an interpreter. The interpreter told the man, “Here’s the medicine woman.” The old man turned his head and looked at Owl and said, “She’s too young. She don’t know nothing. I’ll stay with my Indian doctor.”
She replied: “If he doesn’t want me to touch him or give him medicine I won’t do it. But if – morning, noon, or night – I can do anything for him, he can send for me and I’ll come.”
Four days later, a man on a horse came racing to the school to let Owl know, “He wants you.”
So Owl and her interpreter traveled back in their buggy to tend to the man. Owl recalled, “I examined him and I thought that he had a heatstroke. … I bathed him and kept putting compresses (on him) … and finally got his temperature down; it was 104 to 102 and then I started giving him sips of water. … It was getting late, so I mixed up two aspirin tablets in a glass of water and made him drink it. … When I got back at 10 o’clock the next morning he was sitting up and eating breakfast. … He said I was a little angel. And I didn’t have any trouble after that with the Indians. It all fell to me to do what I could for them.”
Her services were so valued at the school that when she was drafted by the U.S. Army to serve as an American Red Cross nurse at Fort Dobbs, the doctors at the school got her a deferral. When she was then called to Fort Dodge, they got her deferred again. But the next time the order came, she went.
In a 1982 interview, she slyly remembered why she did not fight for another deferral, “I had a good reason. In the meantime, I’d gotten married.”
She explained to the interviewer, “We were at a rodeo and I met (Jack Gloyne, a private in the Army). And in two weeks time, we were married. And he had to go on to Camp Kerlee. … I’d had a letter from him a few days before (my call to Camp Lewis) and Jack said, ‘We are going to be mustered out … I don’t know where, but it’s rumored we’re going to Camp Lewis, Tahoma, Washington.’ So when the order came, it said, ‘Report without fail to Camp Lewis,’ and my ticket came and I went.”
With her entry into the US Army Nurse Corp. as a 2nd Lieutenant, Owl Gloyne became the first – and only – officer from the EBCI to serve in World War I.
But finding her new husband in Camp Lewis, the largest military post in the U.S. at the time was not easy. (More than 37,000 people lived at the camp by the end of 1917.) After asking around for weeks, she heard a rumor that a group from Camp Kerlee had arrived several weeks earlier, so she wrote a note and it miraculously found its way to Jack Gloyne.
Owl Gloyne remembered, “He called me at my barracks (and told me)) to wait for him at the bridge and we would go to the restaurant and eat and talk.” But as they were walking down the path, they passed another officer, who said to Jack, “Privates aren’t allowed to associate with officers, go back to your barracks.”
Owl Gloyne never told the Army that she was married “because they would have kicked me out. They wouldn’t take a married woman.”
Though Owl Gloyne was the only ECBI officer, she was certainly not the only EBCI member to serve in WWI; 117 EBCI members registered for the federal draft at Cherokee’s school on June 11, 1917. And when the U.S. Army realized that the Germans were intercepting Allied messages written in English, they began to consider sending messages in Native American languages. During the Somme Offensive in the fall of 1918, men from the Eastern Band became the first documented code talkers. The success of messages transmitted in the Cherokee language led to the “better-known use of Navajo code talkers during WWII.”
Returning to Cherokee
After the war, Lula and Jack Gloyne began making their way east, eventually settling in Cherokee. Jack got a job running a store and post office and Lula became the first full-time western-trained nurse serving the people on the Qualla Boundary. The couple would eventually have four children.
Owl Gloyne remembered, “I think I worked about two years without pay. I couldn’t say no. After two years time, the superintendent created a job for me as a field nurse, so I did a lot of home nursing. At the time that I started we didn’t have a resident doctor.”
Though there had been a doctor associated with the Cherokee Boarding School, the school’s medical ward was not open to the public. The closest doctor at the time was Dr. Bennett, who was located 10 miles away in Bryson City. According to Owl Gloyne, often a “woman could be in labor and almost ready to deliver and he wouldn’t get here in time so I had to go ahead and deliver. But I had kinda specialized in the subject … so I’d had some experience in delivering.” Owl Gloyne actually had a great deal of experience; she had received the gold medal in obstetrics from her nursing school.
Owl Gloyne had another concern; the closest public hospital was in Waynesville. And though the Cherokee Boarding School doctor and nurse were opposed to opening the school hospital (known as the dispensary) to the public, Owl Gloyne went to Washington, D.C., to speak to the officials in charge of Indian Medical Affairs. She recalled, “they finally decided to open up the dispensary; it was two wards (with about nine beds each) and it had two sun porches. And then we had a delivery room and it was also used for an operating room.”
When the hospital opened, they hired Owl Gloyne as head nurse and gave her a Ford to drive. (Previously she had walked, ridden horseback, or taken an ox team to visit patients in their homes.) In 1982, she remembered the first patient she took to the hospital.
The woman’s husband had told Owl Gloyne that his wife was sick. But, Owl Gloyne recalled, “he didn’t tell me that she was going to have a baby.” The couple’s house was far up on the mountain, accessible only by a wagon road that crossed several creeks.
To get across the creeks, “a man told me how to ford the creeks and not kill my motor. I’d open up the hood and loosen up the exhaust pipe … and after I got across I’d have to stop and hook it back up. I think I had to cross about four streams until I got to where the woman was in labor.”
Owl Gloyne continued, “When I got up there she was lying on the floor on a dirty quilt … and I said, ‘You’re going to the hospital.’” But the woman wanted to have the baby at home. Still, Owl Gloyne convinced her to go. “I put her on the back seat and came flying down to Cherokee and every few minutes I’d turn back and say, “Don’t you dare have that baby in my new car!’ … I had to stop and unhook the exhaust pipe every time, so (when) I got her to the hospital and she wasn’t up there 10 minutes before she had that baby.”
“That was the first baby that was born in the hospital,” Owl Gloyne said, “and after that it wasn’t long before they were just glad to come in when they were sick and they used that hospital up (at the school) until they built a new one (in Cherokee).
Jack Gloyne died 1931 of yellow jaundice. After his death, Owl Gloyne requested a transfer and took her family to Oklahoma to live and work as a public health nurse for the next nine years.
Of her time in Oklahoma, Owl Gloyne recalled, “Mary Lou wasn’t yet two at the time, and the other three children were just grade school youngsters. I had a big job to face, rearing those four children and seeing to their education all by myself. But I was determined to keep them all together as a family, instead of farming them out to people who offered. I was lucky in having my nursing experience to fall back on, and I went right back to work. Those first years were hard – carrying a full schedule, and trying to make a good home for the kids in my time off. But I did it. I did it, all by myself and with no help from anybody.”
When she returned to Cherokee she continued to serve her community in a variety of medical positions. In 1943, the EBCI designated Lula Owl Gloyne as a “Beloved Woman,” a title bestowed upon women who have “made special and unique contributions to the Cherokee people.”
Anne Chesky Smith is the executive director of Asheville Museum of History and the author of the 2021 book “Murder at Asheville’s Battery Park Hotel: The Search for Helen Clevenger’s Killer.”