Marcella LeBeau

Lakota Elder, Nurse Leader, and World War II Veteran

Marcella LeBeau (Wigmuke Waste’ Win /Pretty Rainbow Woman) was born on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in Promise, South Dakota in 1919. Marcella was one of five children born to Florence Four Bear Ryan, who was from the Two Kettles subtribe of the Lakota people, and Joseph M. Ryan, an Irish-American. At the young age of ten, Marcella became responsible for household and childcare responsibilities after her mother passed. She continued to attend Indian Boarding school and later graduated with an undergraduate degree in nursing from St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre, South Dakota in 1942.

Photo sourced from Doyle Glass circa 1944

Upon graduation, Marcella began working at a hospital in Michigan. Shortly after, she volunteered to enlist in the United States Army Nurse Corps during World War II. She served in the 76th General Hospital Unit and worked throughout France, England, and Belgium. Most significantly she survived the Battle of the Bulge and a bombing on her hospital in Liege that killed 25 men. She voluntarily left the Army as a First Lieutenant.

Marcella returned to South Dakota and worked for the Indian Health Service for almost 31 years. She was the Director of Nursing for the Eagle Butte Hospital. In 1991, she served on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Council where she pushed for anti-smoking efforts on the reservation. She was successful and is credited with making the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation the first smoke-free community in South Dakota. She is also a founding member of the North American Indian Women’s Association which is an educational and service association to improve intertribal communication, family life, and promote health and education initiatives for North American Indian people.

Photo sourced from South Dakota Hall of Fame

Marcella has been recognized for her service as a professional nurse, veteran, and leader within her community. In 2004, she received the French Legion of Honor Medal. She was also awarded the Mable Ann Wagner Award for exceptional nursing service. She was also inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2006. In 2020, she was recognized by the National Congress of American Indians with a Leadership Award. Despite her lengthy contributions, Marcella remains politically active and most recently advocated for the Remove the Stain Act in Congress. This Act seeks to rescind medals of honor from U.S. soldiers who participated in the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Married with eight children, Marcella remains active as a caregiver, gardener, and participates in speaking engagements around the nation sharing her knowledge and experiences. She celebrated her 102 birthday this past October.

Further Resources

Learn about Native American history and the nursing profession.

Support the National Alaska Native American Indian Nurses Association.

Watch Marcella’s full interview with the American Veteran Center

Sources

The sources used for the above biography was referenced from South Dakota Hall of Fame, The Library of Congress, and South Dakota State University.

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Nurse and PhD student studying the history of nursing. “We must go back to our roots in order to move forward.”

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