Category Archives: BIA Bureau of Indian Affairs

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was called by a number of names, including the Indian Office and Indian Bureau. The head of the bureau was the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The BIA hired Indian agents to oversee the reservations it controlled.

Prodded to Action

Some Physicians Were Patients' Advocates, courtesy Peoria Historical Society

Some Physicians Were Patients’ Advocates, courtesy Peoria Historical Society

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, absorbed any number of inspections conducted by the Indian Service. Unless recommendations fell in with his own desires (such as recommendations for new buildings and equipment, for example), he seldom changed any of his practices to accommodate findings. Hummer was faulted early on for “managing from his desk” instead of getting out of his office and into the wards, where he could see and supervise his staff and patients. Apparently, he was still managing from his desk in 1927.

In a memo to employees written in January of that year, Dr. Hummer told them that he had been “criticised by Dr. Emil Krulish, the Medical Inspector for this district, for the honor system which I have had in effect at this place for many years past.”

Doctors Visit Patients Who Are Kept in Restraints

Doctors Visit Patients Who Are Kept in Restraints

Hummer told employees that he would now be making more frequent inspections to see if they were carrying out his instructions. He had “already discovered that collectively you are off your wards entirely too frequently.”

Dr. Hummer May Have Used a Similar Medical Bag

Dr. Hummer May Have Used a Similar Medical Bag

Hummer told his staff that they would need to give him a satisfactory reason for being off the ward; for the first offense they would receive a warning, and for the second, “summarily dismissed from the service.”

Employees had to sign and date that they had read the instructions. However, since conditions continued to deteriorate, it seems improbable that Hummer actually followed through with his promised crackdown.

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Institutional Supply

Most Staff at Asylums Were Local

Most Staff at Asylums Were Local

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians brought plenty of federal money into the local economy. However, as part of the larger Bureau of Indian Affairs, the institution also purchased many of its day-to-day items through governmental suppliers.

In a 1927 letter to the superintendent of the Warehouse for Indian Supplies in Chicago, Illinois, Dr. Harry Hummer requested a couple of staples:

Oleomargarine Was a Butter Substitute

Oleomargarine Was a Butter Substitute

— “Oleomargarine, in 60-lb containers, artificially colored–1600 lbs.” He requested a 60-lb container every two weeks for the fiscal year.

— “Hams, smoked, 600 lbs.” He requested the meat in 200 lb. increments three times a year (November, January, and March). The asylum additionally raised its own cattle and hogs to supplement this order.

Institutional Cooking Required Full Time Staff

Institutional Cooking Required Full Time Staff

Dr. Hummer also bought cots, shoes, and clothing (often excess items that were extremely inexpensive) through federal channels. What he almost never obtained through the government, though, was labor. Attendants, cooks, laborers, etc. were almost always locals, though certain positions like the matron’s (as well as his own) were appointments within the Indian Service.

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Canton Asylum a Good Value for the Government

Most Asylums Had More Amenities Than Canton Asylum

Most Asylums Had More Amenities Than Canton Asylum

When the  subcommittee of [the] House Committee on Appropriations met to discuss Indian monies for 1924, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians came under discussion. Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Edgar B. Meritt, asked for $40,000 for the asylum’s equipment and maintenance.

In his presentation of expenses, Meritt added this information:

“The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians has the custodial care of 90 patients whose hospitalization, in the majority of cases, will be during the period of their lives. This institution is maintained very efficiently on the appropriations estimated for, which is the same as allowed for the last fiscal year.

Patients Offset Many Asylum Expenses by Working, Such as These Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

Patients Offset Many Asylum Expenses by Working, Such as These Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane

“The average annual cost, including employees, transportation, hospitalization, clothing, burials, the upkeep of the buildings and all incidentals is something less than $400 for each patient. The cost of the custodial care in State institutions ranges from $480 to $800 a year exclusive of transportation, clothing, and burial expenses in case of death. In private asylums the expenses are still greater with a larger list of exclusions.”

Unmarked Graves at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, GA

Unmarked Graves at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, GA

Meritt made a convincing case for the requested amount of money. Oddly, none of the committee members asked why Canton’s expenses were so much lower than any other institution’s. They may have been afraid of uncovering something they didn’t want to hear.

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Suggested Changes From The Problem With Indian Administration

Patients Seated in Dining Room at Pennhurst, circa 1915, the Former Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic

Patients Seated in Dining Room at Pennhurst, circa 1915, the Former Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble Minded and Epileptic

When The Problem With Indian Administration was delivered to the Secretary of the Interior by Lewis Meriam’s team (see last post), the report made many recommendations for the hundreds of schools, reservations, and hospitals the team had visited. These included increasing salaries of personnel who had direct contact with Indians (to attract better people to the Indian Service), more cubic feet per child at boarding schools, and adopting the standards established by the American College of Surgeons for accredited hospitals to all Indian Service hospitals.

The team recommended several specific improvements for the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians: Increase the personnel; put a graduate nurse in charge of each building with patients; provide additional laborers for the farm and dairy; segregate epileptics, children, and the tuberculous into three groups apart from the other patients; and improve equipment in the hospital, kitchen, and bakery. The team included a call for installing “a system of records conforming to accepted psychiatric practice in hospitals for the insane.”

Cottages 6 and 5, Epileptic Colony, Abilene, Texas

Cottages 6 and 5, Epileptic Colony, Abilene, Texas

Children's Dayroom at Byberry Mental Institution, circa 1938, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Children’s Dayroom at Byberry,  Later the Philadelphia State Hospital,, circa 1938, courtesy Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent at the Canton Asylum, did try many times to get a separate cottage for epileptic patients, but was never successful. However, a later inspector who was a psychiatrist–which no one on Meriam team had been–believed that most of the patients with convulsions were not even epileptic. Meriam’s team likely had to go by Dr. Hummer’s diagnoses, in which he had identified any patient with convulsions as epileptic.

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Scrutinizing the BIA

Hubert Work

Hubert Work

Soon after he took office, Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work contacted the Institute for Government Research; he wanted them to take an intensive look at how his organization was managing the Native American population under its control. The Institute gathered a team of experts headed by Lewis Meriam to survey reservations, schools, and other Indian Bureau facilities. On February 21, 1928, they presented Work  with a report called “The Problem of Indian Administration” that didn’t mince words.

Meriam’s report reviewed the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, and found it lacking. By this time, the institution had several buildings, and the report began with a brief description of them: “At Hiawatha (the local name for the asylum) . . . the central portion of the main building contains the administrative quarters and the culinary section on the first floor, and the employees’ living quarters on the second floor.”

Sample Pages From The Problem of Indian Administration

Sample Pages From The Problem of Indian Administration

The bakery was located in the basement of the building and “was in disorder and the oven was in a bad state of repair.” The inspectors noted the sleeping arrangements for patients and said that: “Equipment is confined almost entirely to iron beds.”

It was a dismal picture, and it seemed consistent. “The hospital building is located about fifty yards from the main building. On the first floor is a good sized dining room in great disorder.” It added later, “The dairy barn was very disorderly,” and that “the power plant and laundry are located in a separate building . . . both were in disorder.”

Much of Meriam's Report Dealt With Indian Boarding Schools Like This One at Fort Spokane

Much of Meriam’s Report Dealt With Indian Boarding Schools Like This One at Fort Spokane

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Attempts at Christmas Cheer

Christmas Tree in Wisconsin State Hospital, 1895

Christmas Tree in Wisconsin State Hospital, 1895

Even when overcrowding and underfunding began to eat away at the effectiveness and relative comfort of asylum care, superintendents often went to great lengths to create a festive atmosphere during Christmas and other major holidays. These efforts eased the monotony of asylum life for patients as well as for staff.

 

Ward Decorated For Christmas, Fulton State Hospital, 1910

Ward Decorated For Christmas, Fulton State Hospital, 1910

 

 

At Northern Hospital for the Insane, staff decorated the chapel with a Christmas tree and placed evergreens and candles throughout the room. Many patients had received presents from their friends and family, and the superintendent, Dr. Wigginton, and his staff had purchased additional gifts to place under the tree so that no one would be forgotten.

Christmas at Morningside Hospital, Portland, Oregon, circa 1920s, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

Christmas at Morningside Hospital, Portland, Oregon, circa 1920s, courtesy Oregon Historical Society

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, patients also celebrated Christmas with a decorated tree, special meals, and stockings filled with edible treats. In 1927, the asylum received additional holiday help from the Chilocco, Oklahoma YWCA; its girls gathered (and likely contributed) gifts like dolls, games, and books to the asylum’s patients as a service project. These were delivered on Christmas Eve, to the delight of the patients. Hummer asked the coordinator to continue with the service project, and the girls evidently did so, since there is record of the asylum receiving gifts again in 1932 or 1933.

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The Price of Convenience

Great Blizzard of 1909, Canton, SD

Great Blizzard of 1909, Canton, SD

The vast majority of employees at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians lived on the premises as part of their compensation package. Though it could certainly be a bit restrictive to seldom leave the asylum grounds, they benefited by not having to trudge through blizzards and ice to get to work in the winter, and very likely saved a great deal of time each day by not having to add travel time to what was usually a very long work shift.

Employees' Dining Room, Clark County Insane Asylum, Wisc., 1922, courtesy Clark County History Buff

Employees’ Dining Room, Clark County Insane Asylum, Wisc., 1922, courtesy Clark County History Buffs

Dr. Hummer, the asylum’s superintendent (evidently in answer to a letter from the Indian Office about the availability of quarters), wrote a letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in September, 1916 about his financial clerk’s living arrangements. Hummer stated that it would be possible to furnish quarters at the asylum for the clerk, except for the inconvenience it would cause. The clerk had a wife and daughter, and the family would need three rooms to live in–which wouldn’t be possible unless Hummer gave up his office, the matron’s kitchen, or the sitting room “now used by all the employees.” The financial clerk didn’t want to cause this hardship, and asked that the government provide coal for him to use in his home in Canton.

Hummer’s position was that “I would prefer to furnish him with this coal, rather than make it unpleasant for him or any of the employees.” The commissioner’s office replied: “The Office does not believe it advisable to furnish Mr. T. T. Smith, Financial Clerk, with coal for his home at Canton.”

Jamison No 7 Mines, October 16, 1916, Barrickville, WVa

Jamison No 7 Mines, October 16, 1916, Barrickville, WVa

The price of coal was about $1.24/ton wholesale at this time, and the clerk had estimated he would need about five tons of it each winter.

 

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A Favorite Project

Epilepsy Was a Feared Condition

Epilepsy Was a Feared Condition

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, almost continually made and implemented plans to expand the facility. One building that he especially wanted and never received was a separate cottage for epileptics. Though it came out near the end of his career at the asylum that he had erroneously classified anyone with seizures as “epileptic,” Hummer definitely wanted patients with these symptoms separated from the others.

In a letter dated January 15, 1916, he discussed his vision for such a cottage: “The structure should be two-story, one for males and one for females, and the sleeping-space should be an open dormitory arrangement, with one room for disturbed cases and one room for the employee, on each floor. If possible, it would be an excellent plan to surround the structure on three sides with sleeping porches, and we should have a day (living) room, separate from the dormitories.” Hummer asked that the building be constructed of brick and stone or brick and concrete so that it would match the other buildings on site.

Epileptic Hospital in Kansas

Epileptic Hospital in Kansas

Epileptic Asylum in Abilene, Texas

Epileptic Asylum in Abilene, Texas

Hummer’s rationale for a separate building was that: “All institutions for the insane make an effort to segregate the patients, and it [is] a well known fact that epileptics get along much better when to themselves than when housed with other classes.”

His first statement was probably true, but the second had little data to support it.

 

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Hard Decisions

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1913

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1913

Many people cared about the insane in their midst and tried to do their best by them. Though there were certainly abuses, many of the family and friends who sent their loved ones to insane asylums thought they were doing the right thing or acting in the patients’ best interests. Even after asylums began to lose their initial glow and were seen for the imperfect places they were, many people still felt mentally ill people were better off in them simply because they could receive consistent, professional care.

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was representative of its times in this matter. in 1913, the superintendent of the Shoshoni [sic] Indian Reservation asked the commissioner of Indian Affairs to admit Meda Ensign to the asylum. At the time, this asylum was overcrowded, as most were. The asylum’s superintendent, Dr. Hummer, still replied that he would admit her once authorization was given. Many would question this decision, since another patient would only lead to greater overcrowding.

Shoshone Encampment, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming, Photographed by W. H. Jackson in 1870

Shoshone Encampment, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming, Photographed by W. H. Jackson in 1870

Dr. Hummer did need his headcount to go up so he could supervise a bigger, more prestigious asylum, and typically did not like to discharge patients or reject new ones. However, that consideration very likely wasn’t the only thing on his mind. In his letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hummer points out the overcrowding, but adds: “If the conditions under which she is living are as bad as portrayed by Superintendent Norris, this authority (to admit Ensign) should be sent me without delay.”

Crowded Ward at Hudson River State Hospital

Crowded Ward at Hudson River State Hospital

More patients led to overcrowding, which worsened patient care but could justify more money and more buildings so that more patients could be admitted and helped. Superintendents at asylum everywhere juggled these issues, just as Dr. Hummer did. It had to be difficult not to accept patients when it was obvious they would be very poorly cared for elsewhere.

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One Way to Canton

Downtown Albuquerque, circa 1912, courtesy National Archives

Downtown Albuquerque, circa 1912, courtesy National Archives

Admitting a patient to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was usually an easy–and fast–procedure. Since patients were not generally committed through legal process, a series of letters was usually sufficient to justify cause, ask for admittance, and give permission for it. Patients’ rights were trampled of course, but records show that many of those who urged a patient’s commitment felt that they were doing the right thing.

Early Class of Young Boys, Albuquerque Indian School, circa 1895, courtesy National Archives

Early Class of Young Boys, Albuquerque Indian School, circa 1895, courtesy National Archives

Lillian Burns, a young Laguna woman at Albuquerque Pueblo Day School, evidently became violent and uncontrollable on June 19, 1912. She was taken to the Laguna sanatorium, but the staff could not supervise her constantly and had to call in various teachers, police, and farmers for help. J. B. Burke, Clerk in Charge at the Pueblo Day School, asked a local doctor for help; Dr. Dillon contacted the Indian Office, and after no response, suggested taking Burns to the State Insane Asylum in Las Vegas.

New Mexico Insane Asylum in Las Vegas, 1904

New Mexico Insane Asylum in Las Vegas, 1904

In his telegram concerning this commitment, Dr. Dillon asked: “Can we bring her on number ten to-morrow. Impossible and inhumane to keep her here longer, otherwise must turn  her over to sheriff.”

Burke wired Dr. Dillon (and evidently the Indian Office as well) to arrange for Burns to be sent to the Canton Asylum, instead. The Indian Office responded with a telegram of its own authorizing $100 to cover transportation and expenses, and Burke acted on that as permission to send Burns to the Canton Asylum.

Lillian Burns, who was taken ill on June 19, was admitted to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians on June 25, less than a week later. Fortunately, she was a patient who, unlike most, did not spend a lot of time there. She was released in April, 1913.

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