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A 21-Arrow Salute: ‘Come See the Crazy Indians’

There are two Hiawathas in history: the fictional character in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of 1855, and the real historical Iroquois chief.
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The Hiawatha Golf Club just east of Canton, South Dakota has an anomaly. Between the fourth and fifth fairways lies a cemetery. Enclosed by a weathered split-rail fence, the cemetery, roughly square at about 120 feet a side, is said to contain the remains of 121 inmates from the long since defunct Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum. A ground radar survey by a team from the Choctaw Nation last year puts the figure closer to 130.

Sunday morning, June 5, this hallowed ground was fairly warm by 10 a.m. Standing by the lone granite marker, whose bronze plaque carries the names of 120 of those buried somewhere close beneath it, I heard a soft rustle behind me. Ten feet west of the split rails stood a young man with a golf club who appeared to be waiting, more or less patiently. Lying in front of him was a golf ball.

I exited the cemetery on the west side and stopped by a tree. After a few practice swings, the young man approached his ball and then struck it. It skittered beneath the rail, through the cemetery, and out the east end, headed for the fourth green. I thought of Arlington National Cemetery. Would they allow this young man to “play through” there? I then thought of the mass burial site at Wounded Knee, and how nice it would be if it were surrounded by Hiawatha’s manicured lawns and lush and well-pruned trees. But not if it came with golfers.

The fifth annual Honoring and Remembering Ceremony for Native Americans buried at the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum Cemetery was held two hours later, just after noon. Lavanah Smith-Judah, chief organizer of the event, said members of 53 tribes are buried in the cemetery, and all “53 tribes from across 17 states” were invited.

A traditional prayer by Ihanktowan tribal elder, Joe Shields, started things off, followed by a procession to the granite stone and plaque where an honor guard of Ihanktowan veterans presented national and tribal colors. Flags from five other tribes were also presented by their members present. Traditional drum and songs were sung by the Yankton Sioux Singers.

David Rooks

I thought of Arlington National Cemetery. Would they allow this young man to “play through” there?

The 80 or so attending were invited to participate in a “Who will sing my name?” prayer ribbon ceremony. As each ancestor’s name was called out, a single yellow, black, white or red ribbon, representing an ancestor buried there, was tied on a fence rail. At the close of the ceremony, a 21-arrow salute was given by an archery team of students from Nebraska Indian Community College.

Before the salute, Dr. Erich Longie, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Spirit Lake Dakota Sioux Tribe in Spirit Lake, North Dakota spoke. Longie reminded everyone that it is the nature of tribal peoples to keep their ancestors with them always; in their hearts, their minds, and their prayers. Longie also pledged to go back to Spirit Lake and see if he could get his tribe to help fund the purchase and construction of a new fence around the cemetery.

Given the golfer earlier that morning, Longie’s pledge seemed timely.

There are two Hiawathas in history: the fictional character in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of 1855, and the real, flesh and blood, historical Iroquois chief. No one at the golf club could say which Hiawatha the golf course, or the insane asylum, were named after. That’s quite in keeping with the entire history of the ill-starred asylum.

A history entry from the South Dakota government website states “The “Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians” was established by the U.S. Congress in 1899, officially opened in 1903, and closed in 1934 after federal investigations found, not just outdated, but inhumane treatment. The asylum was only the second federal insane asylum and the first to be dedicated to an ethnic group. Around 374 Native Americans from 50 tribes across the country were brought here.

In what amounts to a footnote, the entry concludes with “… though the asylum itself was dismantled in the 1940s, the cemetery where 121 inmates were buried is still located in a fenced area between the 4th and 5th fairways of the Hiawatha Golf Course. The official state website treats the existence of a golf course surrounding a cemetery as if it were reporting last year’s soybean yield.

Exiting Hiawatha Cemetery through its northeast corner, 20 feet from the fence I saw a grave marker,. It was the only individual marker I saw; it read: Lizzie Vipont, April 17, 1917. I recognized the name from Carla Johnson’s Vanished in Hiawatha, a history of the Canton Asylum.

Lizzie Vipont came to Hiawatha in 1905 at the age of 30. A Paiute from Churz, Nevada, she was alleged to be “delusional,” and to have “auditory hallucinations.” While at the asylum, Vipont became pregnant from another inmate. Both she and her child are buried there. A final detail: Lizzie Vipont died “owning $156.25 from doing laundry and beadwork.”

An infamous fact about the closing of the Asylum in 1934 is how hard the Canton Chamber of Commerce fought to keep it open. Repeated petitions to the Congress, the state, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs went for naught. But the chamber was dogged, and not just because of the jobs that would be lost. The prosperous former capital of the “Dacotah Territory” had developed a new revenue stream.

For the last several years, a tourist trade had been built up by the city fathers. Steven Silberman, in Neurotribes, writes that “Ads in newspapers invited the public to a cleaned up area of the hospital to “come see the crazy Indians.” It became Canton’s rallying cry; and come they did from hundreds of miles in every direction to see the monsters of the Canton midway. The trade was immortalized on the official historical plaque for the asylum: “Patients did domestic and agricultural work onsite, were occasionally shown to paying visitors, and underwent treatment with methods later deemed to be outdated and dehumanizing.”

“Paying visitors” watched sad Lizzie Vipont mourn her child while doing beadwork, and that was not considered “outdated and dehumanizing.” Silberman further writes that “a psychiatrist named Samuel Silk revealed [Asylum Superintendent Harry] Hummer, the only doctor at the facility for 23 years, had quietly turned the institution into a prison for Native men and women on reservations deemed troublesome by federal agents.

“Diagnosed as insane by Hummer without a shred of medical evidence, they were confined in shackles, chains, and straitjackets, with no possibility of parole to visit their families, often for the rest of their lives. Patients routinely ate on the floor, were locked up each night with no access to toilets, and were denied basic medical care. Lacking any legal means to contest their confinement, most of the patients admitted to the asylum also died there.”

Thirty-two years earlier, in 1902, J.R. Brennan, United States Indian Agent for the Sicangu Lakota on the Rosebud Reservation observed in his annual Commissioner’s Report that “These Indians are so susceptible to the evil effects of confinement that to them a sentence to a few years in the penitentiary is equivalent to a sentence to death.” A prophecy as regards the inmates of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.