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.

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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A Look Inside Hummer’s Home

Front Room of Dr. Hummer's Cottage

View Toward Front Room and Entrance of Dr. Hummer’s Cottage*

Dr. Harry Hummer, superintendent of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, made sure that he and his family got the choicest rooms in the asylum for their living quarters. His selfishness in the matter of living arrangements contributed to a divisive relationship with his assistant, Dr. Hardin, who had brought a family of his own to the asylum. The Hardins were quartered in patently inferior rooms and Dr. Hummer seemed to almost go out of his way to make their living arrangements as inconvenient for them as possible. After a few months under Hummer’s management Dr. Hardin not only left the asylum, he left the Indian Service entirely.

Entrance to Kitchen

Entrance to Kitchen

This exchange was typical. Dr. Hummer usually won his battles with employees, and was persistent enough to almost always get what he wanted from the government. (The exceptions were his prized epileptic cottage, which was never built, and a few other “desirable” buildings like a chapel.) Hummer was not satisfied with his quarters in the asylum and repeatedly asked for a separate cottage for his family to live in. He eventually won this concession, and must have waited anxiously on its completion. (See last post.) The grounds of the asylum were quite lovely, so it would have been delightful indeed to enjoy his substantial new home, surrounded as it was by trees, bushes and green sweeps of lawn.

View of the Dining Area

View of the Dining Area

Quarters for his employees remained cramped and inadequate. It does not appear from records that Dr. Hummer made any requests to improve their living spaces.

*The furniture in these pictures is not authentic to the period.

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A Home of One’s Own

Plaque at Newton Hills State Park

Plaque at Newton Hills State Park

Many people in today’s workforce complain that it’s difficult to get away from the job–they’re available to their employers through phones and email almost constantly. Superintendents and other staff at insane asylums were also tied to the workplace, actually living on the premises and usually right in the same building as patients. Many superintendents felt that this was a good idea, since it gave staff the opportunity to know the patients better, and of course, made them immediately available if a situation arose that needed attention.

Though room and board were nice perks for employees, most would doubtlessly have preferred living off the premises or at least away from patients. The superintendents at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were no different. For one thing, staff quarters were crowded. Canton Asylum’s first superintendent, Oscar Gifford, had a home in town and simply gave his assistant superintendent, Dr. Turner, the space they would have otherwise shared. The asylum’s second superintendent, Dr. Harry Hummer, came from out of state and needed to live in the available quarters. He shared these with Dr. Turner and with his replacement, Dr. Hardin, until Hardin left the Indian Service.

Former Canton Asylum Superintendent's Home

The Canton Asylum Superintendent’s Home As It Now Stands in Newton Hills State Park

Dr. Hummer always wanted his own, separate home, however, and finally gained approval for a residential cottage. Hummer received two bids for the project and recommended accepting the bid from Martin Granos: “He agrees to give us three coats of plaster, a larger basement [than the other bidder], a larger cistern, beamed ceiling in the living-room, stained shingles, a $58.00 range, a $31.00 ice-box built in, oak finish throughout the interior, fireproofed fireplace and three kinds of water in the bath-room.”

Decades after the asylum closed, Dr. Hummer’s cottage was removed from the premises and taken to Newton Hills State Park in South Dakota, where it is available for rent to vacationers and other members of the public. The reconstructed cottage differs just slightly from the original.

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An Impossible Job?

Superintendent Oscar Gifford

Superintendent Oscar Gifford

Though the rules and duties of each asylum position had been formulated by 1903, they were not initially given to employees at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Its first superintendent, Oscar Gifford, told an inspector that he hadn’t done so because employees often had to assume whatever tasks came up, and he didn’t want to constantly make exceptions to a job description. He may have also feared that no one would want the job of attendant in particular, if they had had a chance to read the extent of their duties.

An attendant’s duties included the obvious ones of feeding, dressing, bathing, supervising exercise and manual labor for patients, preserving order at all times, taking patients to the toilet and meals, waiting on them at meals, etc.

Female Patients Farming in the early 1900s

Female Patients Farming in the early 1900s

However, they were also expected to be housekeepers extraordinaire. Attendants were to: make beds, dust, sweep, and “brighten the floors, hardware, plumbing fixtures, etc. . . . They shall have special care of the lavatories and toilet rooms, keeping them thoroughly clean.” Every portion of the ward was to be kept “well aired and of proper temperature and as free as possible for objectionable odor.” Attendants were to scrub the floors, walls, and windows when needed, and make beds. In the case of female attendants, all this work would have been done in a long, cumbersome dress and perhaps an apron.

Patients Making Rugs, Hammocks, etc. at Hudson River State Hospital, 1909

Patients Making Rugs, Hammocks, etc. at Hudson River State Hospital, 1909

It would have taken a large staff to do all the work properly, and Canton Asylum never had that luxury. Nurses were supposed to administer medicine (and probably change bandages, etc.), but were never hired until the last few years of the asylum’s existence. Attendants undoubtedly had those additional duties thrust on them, and it is little wonder that patient care deteriorated as the asylum filled up.

 

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No Consequences

Dr. Harry Hummer

Dr. Harry Hummer

Anyone following the inspections and various reports made on the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians might well feel amazed that Dr. Harry Hummer managed to continue as superintendent there. Several inspectors suggested outright that he be dismissed from the place, while others pointed out personality clashes and poor management practices that led to problems in the facility. However, it wasn’t until the very end of his career that Hummer expressed much concern about keeping his job. Why was he so self-assured?

For one thing, Hummer was often able to dismiss or explain criticisms in a way that convinced superiors that there wasn’t a real problem. Secondly, for many years no one with medical expertise inspected the asylum, and so Hummer’s treatment of patients never came into question. Issues with personnel or poor farming and so on, may have been legitimately of secondary concern to Hummer’s supervisors in Washington, DC. Finally, Hummer (reportedly) bragged to some of his acquaintances that he had friends in Washington who would protect him.

Robert Valentine, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Beginning June 1909

Robert Valentine, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Beginning June 1909

In a letter dated December 13, 1909 and written to the Indian Rights Association shortly after his resignation from the asylum, Dr. L. M. Hardin seems to confirm Hummer’s belief. “There has been nothing done by the [Indian] Office to date looking towards a correction of the existing conditions at the institution by the removal of Dr. Hummer as prayed for by the employees in their sworn charges,” Hardin wrote bitterly. He continued by saying that: “such a man whose inefficiency and incompetency is supported by one of his friends in the Office, viz, Walter Fry, 1st asst, to Mr. Dortch of the Div. of Education and who evidently is sidetracking the justice that should be met out to Dr. Hummer.”

Text of Speeches from the Annual Meeting of the Indian Rights Association, December 1909

Text of Speeches from the Annual Meeting of the Indian Rights Association, December 1909

Hardin urged a congressional inquiry into the situation at the Canton Asylum, but there seems to be no evidence that one was initiated.

 

 

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