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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Year of Unity Note: Remember the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians

Pierre has been putting out press releases promoting the "Year of Unity" declared by Governor Rounds to revive the reconciliation process started by Governor Mickelson in 1990. The latest notes Eagle Butte's upcoming Centennial celebration and Hometown Days July 15–18.

Perhaps the Year of Unity notes from Pierre are focusing on positive things happening now that can bring whites and Indians together. But unity also requires a shared understanding of our complete history, of the actions and abuses that made us the peoples we are.

Consider, for instance, the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota.

The federal government authorized this facility in 1899. It took its first inmate on December 31, 1902. In its thirty-year history, the asylum racked up a litany of atrocities.

The facility was run first by political appointee, former Canton mayor, and former South Dakota Congressman Oscar Gifford. Having no background in health care or mental illness, Gifford got the nod from the Bureau of Indian Affairs because he arranged the acquisition of the land for the asylum. Gifford was replaced amidst a scandal over patient Lizzie Vipont's becoming pregnant.

Gifford's replacement, Dr. Harry R. Hummer, was no improvement. He starved the patients while his wife secured more rations for his family. He didn't hire staff with formal medical training until the 1920s.

Souvenir spoon from Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, Canton, SD, early 20th centurySouvenir plate from Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, Canton,  SD, early 20th centurySouvenir spoon and plate from the Hiawatha Asylum. See also this postcard.
Photos provided by my neighbor and local historian John Hess, who wrote a great essay on the Canton asylum for the July 2009 Heritage Herald newsletter of the Lake County Historical Society.
Many patients had no mental illness. Some were essentially political prisoners, shipped off to Canton for making trouble on their home reservations. Patients were physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. Cells had no furnishings, no electricity, no plumbing, just overflowing, untended chamberpots. An inspection by Dr. Samuel Silk from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C. found the following appalling conditions:

Patients were found poorly clothed. Many of them were tied to their beds or found handcuffed to pipes or radiators. One woman was found lying in mounds of her own feces infested with maggots. Yet another was found gagged inside a locked room. Those that were coherent attempted to escape or tried to fight for their release by writing to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs only to have their requests dismissed when Dr. Hummer stepped in and made up a good excuse for their continued committal.

Hospital equipment was not used appropriately or at all. The surgery built in the separate hospital building was used for coal storage. TB patients were not sequestered, nor were their utensils or clothing sterilized as required. Menus were not kept but the food served to Dr. Silk was barely edible for animal consumption, let alone human consumption, and was described in its grisly detail in his report ["A Brief History of the Hiawatha Asylum," Hiawatha Foundation, last updated 2009.09.12].

The City of Canton saw the asylum as an economic development tool. Dr. Hummer happily advertised the asylum as a vacation destination, a place to "come see the crazy Indians." The asylum generated $40,000 a year in revenue for the city and provided numerous local jobs. In 1933, new Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier declared the "institution was so outrageously cruel and injurious that we would deserve to be blown out of the water if we continued it." But when the commissioner moved to end those outrages and close the asylum, the City of Canton went to court to keep their federal pork, arguing it was wrong to take federal jobs away in the midst of the Depression. The city also enlisted area tribal members to fight to keep the asylum open: the Rosebud Sioux, for instance, did not want inmates from their tribe transferred even farther from home.

Uncle Sam transferred the inmates out of the Hiawatha Asylum in December 1933. Seventy patients were sent to St. Elizabeth's in Washington, D.C. Twenty-seven inmates were deemed not insane and released. The government officially closed the facility in 1934. Of the horrific conditions that led to the asylum's closure, the City of Canton's official history says only that "Federal reports and assessments cited mismanagement, mistreatment, politics and the economy as the reasons for the closure."

The facility housed 374 Native Americans from 50 tribes around the country. 121 died and were buried on the asylum grounds. The cemetery remains in the middle of the Hiawatha Country Club and Golf Course, between the fourth and fifth fairways.

The Augustana College School and Wheels and the old Norwegian Ski Hill both have state historical markers in the area. A historical marker for the old asylum and the 121 Native Americans buried on the grounds would be an appropriate Year of Unity gesture.

Read more:
  1. Elizabeth Stawicki, "A Haunting Legacy: Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians," Minnesota Public Radio, 1997.12.09
  2. Friends of Hiawatha Project, maintaining Web archive and seeking to produce documentary. Also offering a large bibliography for serious historians.
  3. Carla Joinson, Canton Asylum for Insane Indians: history blog and book project

1 comment:

  1. This is a very important story, especially when so many find that addressing the atrocities and malicious acts that take place in our country is America hating.

    The attitudes and justifications that sustained that horror chamber are still operative in South Dakota and in the nation, such as swirls around the oil spew in the the Gulf. We don't need a year of reconciliation; we need a decade of reparation before any reconciliation is possible. Denying and dismissing past atrocities is paving the way for their repetition in thought, word, and deed.


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