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The Hiawatha Asylum for ‘Insane’ Indians

A column by Ruth Hopkins about the shameful history and horrors of The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

In 1898, just eight years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that created a new federal facility: The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Located in Canton, South Dakota, the Asylum would be the only federal mental institution in the United States created solely for the purpose of housing and treating American Indians who were purportedly mentally ill.

The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians stands out as a particularly ugly chapter in the history of offenses committed against American Indians. It’s been largely hidden from the public, and it’s seldom acknowledged, even in native circles. Still, records and eyewitness accounts of its existence persist.

The asylum began receiving patients in 1903. Mr. Oscar S. Gifford, a U.S. Representative and a former mayor of Canton, became the first administrator of the asylum. He was not a licensed physician or psychiatrist. Amid rumors of patient mistreatment, Gifford was replaced by psychiatrist Harry Hummer in 1908. Hummer stayed on for twenty five years, although he was ultimately dismissed for malfeasance.

Over the years, Native people from various Tribes all across the U.S. were sent to the asylum. Conditions there were shocking. The facility operated without power or indoor plumbing. It was exceedingly understaffed. One or two attendants looked after an entire ward of patients. Staff lacked medical training, supervision, and were utterly ignorant of native languages and customs. Physical abuse as a means of controlling patients was tolerated. Until 1926, matrons who worked at the asylum were not professionally trained nurses. Patients were often shackled to beds, pipes, or radiators and were forced to lie in their own filth for extended periods.

Patients at the asylum were exploited financially too. Besides the fact that very little federally allotted money was spent to feed, clothe, care for, and treat patients, Hummer showcased native patients in a special area of the hospital for the amusement of paying tourists who were invited there from all over the country.

After the historic Meriam Report documented disturbing conditions at the asylum, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs called Dr. Samuel Silk, from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C., to investigate the institution further. What Dr. Silk uncovered was alarming. To say that conditions at the asylum were inhumane is an understatement. Patients lived in squalor. Food was not fit for human consumption. Windows were sealed shut, and because chamber pots were left full of human waste, the air inside the asylum was noxious. He found a woman lying in mounds of her own maggot-infested feces. Other patients had been locked away in isolation for years at a time. He discovered a young boy locked up in a straightjacket, barely clothed and alone. Yes, the asylum admitted native children, often without parental consent. There were babies born there as well, although most did not survive.

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Perhaps the most heartbreaking finding of that investigation, as well as the others that followed, was that the majority of patients admitted to the asylum did not suffer from mental illness. Although The Commissioner of Indian Affairs authorized all admissions to the asylum, those admissions were based on referrals from Indian Agents who supervised reservations. Some patients suffered from alcoholism, but most patients were sent to the asylum because they were considered ‘problem Indians’ who opposed government interests or refused to give up cultural beliefs and practices. Investigations of the asylum made national news. In 1933, The New York Times ran a story entitled: "Sane Indians Held in Dakota Asylum: Patients Kept Shackled."

As it turned out, the asylum was just another means of instilling fear in natives, who were threatened with the prospect of being shipped off to the house of horrors that was the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians if they refused to obey or assimilate.

My great grandfather Tom wouldn’t do either one. He was a proud, stubborn, native man who was known for singing traditional Dakota songs. He was also fond of moccasin games. Tom was repeatedly warned to put away his drum, but he wouldn’t relent. He was a fighter. One night he was beaten within an inch of his life for his disobedience. He was then sent to Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. My great grandfather was never seen or heard from again. His Death Certificate makes note of head trauma.

Records show that at least 350 patients were detained at the asylum. On average, there were four patient deaths each and every month during its thirty year operation. To this day, there is no record of why any of the native patients who were incarcerated at the asylum were placed there, or what the causes of death were for anyone who perished there. At least 121 patients died while imprisoned at the asylum, some without names. In 1934, then Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier finally closed the asylum’s doors.

Today, Tom lies in repose with infants, children and other native men and women who suffered and died within the walls of the asylum. There were no stone markers in the asylum cemetery—Indian Affairs considered them an unwarranted expense. In 1998, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery now sits beneath the fourth and fifth hole of a golf course in Canton.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at