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.

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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How About Asking?

Senator Henry Dawes, Who Sponsored the Dawes Act

Senator Henry Dawes, Who Sponsored the Dawes Act

Native peoples and European immigrants have had varied relationships. At one time, native tribes were treated as independent nations and trading partners, then later as enemies who needed to be destroyed, and even later, as childish wards who needed federal guidance to educate and assimilate them into the so-called “superior” white society. Several congressional Acts were passed to push this agenda forward, among them the Dawes and Curtis Acts. Land was the essential question: how should Indians hold titles to it?

In 1881 Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio argued that whether for right or wrong, fairly or unfairly, “They [Indians] must either change their mode of life or die.” He pointed out that conditions had changed drastically for them: they were no longer treated as independent nations, they no longer had vast, rich territories on which to live, and white settlements had encroached upon lands once set aside exclusively for Native use.

Senator George Hunt Pendleton

Senator George Hunt Pendleton

Pendleton stated that as much as people might regret the situation or wish it to be otherwise, the fact remained that “The Indians cannot fish and hunt . . . they must either change their modes of of life or they will be exterminated.” He went on to urge the President: “we must change our policy . . . we must stimulate within them to the very largest degree, the idea of home, of family, and of property.”

Indian writer and activist D’Arcy McNickle (1904 – 1977), who was Cree, Métis, and Irish but an enrolled member of the Flathead tribe, later commented harshly on Pendleton’s remarks. McNickle wrote: “In the heat of such a discussion, it would not have occurred to any of the debaters to inquire of the Indians what ideas they had of home, of family, and of property.”

D'Arcy McNickle

D’Arcy McNickle

His comment was sad but true. McNickle added, “It would have been assumed, in any case, that the ideas, whatever they were were without merit since they were Indian.”

 

 

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Fourth of July

Sioux Indians Hitting a Dime at 100 Yards, July 4, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

The Indian Bureau was never culturally sensitive, especially when it came to Native American celebrations. It actively discouraged or forbade ceremonial dances, feasts, and other gatherings, fearing that they might unite tribes or keep them from assimilating into white culture. Most gatherings required written permission. One explanation for the Indian Bureau allowing celebrations at all was offered in Sunday Magazine (July 2, 1911): “Shut off on reservations and compelled to do without any extraneous amusements, the Indian grows morose and is much more inclined to give trouble than when occasionally permitted to enjoy himself.”

The Bureau didn’t pay as much attention to Fourth of July celebrations, and Native Americans soon discovered that they could get together on that day without written permission. They began to use the Fourth of July as an excuse to gather and perform the dances and ceremonies they enjoyed. Some tribes had a practice of giving away assets during celebrations, often through a formal ceremony called a potlatch. Native Americans considered it an honor to give their possessions to others, and often gave to the poorest members of the tribe, first. Sioux Indians apparently ramped up this gift-giving practice on the Fourth of July, and the Indian Bureau began calling this “Give-Away Day.” Tribal members celebrated the Fourth with games of skill and strength, feasting, and dancing. They also incorporated their practice of honoring individuals with important gifts, with no thought of reciprocation. Gifts were substantial–horses, fancy bead work, saddles, and other valuable items. Whites seemed to be amazed by the practice, since it often left the giver without any resources.

Fourth of July Celebration, 1891, South Dakota, courtesy Library of Congress

 

Nez Perce Fourth of July Parade, Spaulding, Idaho, 1902, courtesy Library of Congress

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Fry Bread

Navajo Woman and Baby at Bosque Redondo, 1866, courtesy New Mexico State Monuments

Navajo Woman and Baby at Bosque Redondo, 1866, courtesy New Mexico State Monuments

Fry bread (or frybread) is associated with Native American cuisine, but it is not a traditional food for native peoples. The food originated during hard times, and is a symbol of both pride and pain.

In 1863 Gen. James Henry Carleton, commander of New Mexico Territory, rounded up Navajos and Mescalero Apaches in the Four Corners region and forcibly marched them from Ft. Defiance in Arizona to a camp called Bosque Redondo at Fort Sumner. Around 10,000 men, women, and children (including the elderly) walked 450 miles into this eastern New Mexico encampment. Many died along the way or were shot as stragglers. This tragic event is known as The Long Walk.

Once in Bosque Redondo–which was 40 square miles of shortgrass prairie and desert that wouldn’t support farming–at least 2,380 people died of exposure, disease, and hunger. The U.S. government finally issued commodity rations like white flour, lard, sugar, and canned goods to alleviate the misery. Fry bread was a filling meal these prisoners could make, though it was not a nutritious one.

Today fry bread is still a common food which is also popular and prominent at celebrations and powwows. The bread has been eaten for many years by Native Americans and represents a shared culinary experience among many tribes, but more importantly, it represents their perseverance and resiliency. Fry bread is a subsistence food that represents repression and hard times on one hand, yet speaks to triumph and tenacity on the other.

In 2005, the Bosque Redondo Memorial center opened as a place to mourn the dead and to celebrate survival.

Survivors of The Long Walk, 1864, at Fort Sumner

Survivors of The Long Walk, 1864, at Fort Sumner

Navajo at Bosque Redondo

Navajo at Bosque Redondo

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Asylum Comparisons

St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia

St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia

St. Elizabeths and the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were investigated a number of times during the early twentieth century. Both were federal insane asylums, but they were also quite different. St. Elizabeths was very much a medical facility, while the Canton Asylum was run along Indian boarding school lines. In 1927:

— St. Elizabeths had an amusement hall (Hitchcock Hall) for patients; Canton Asylum did not.

— St. Elizabeths had specialized buildings like cottages for tubercular patients and quarantine buildings; Canton Asylum did not.

St. Elizabeths had a 10,000 volume library and subscribed to 35 periodicals; in 1925 the Congressional Library began to send its surplus magazines to the asylum (about 1,000 a month); Canton Asylum received subscriptions to about half a dozen magazines.

St. Elizabeths had a furlough program which allowed patients to go home on trial visits; a social worker followed up on patients during these short visits; Canton Asylum actively discouraged furloughs for any reason. St. Elizabeths created an out-patient department for veterans who had been discharged from the military shortly after commitment. This department helped some patients find employment and tried to help them find a home so that they would not be overwhelmed when they were released. Canton Asylum did not help its patients this way.

A typical menu for a Tuesday midday meal at St. Elizabeths showed: bean soup, beef pot roast, gravy, browned potatoes, cucumbers, bread, oleo, and tapioca cream pudding. A menu for Canton Asylum (from the 1928 Meriam Report) showed: a stew of meat and carrots, with more fat and bones than anything else, thin apple sauce, bread, and coffee.

St. Elizabeths was significantly larger than the Canton Asylum, which gave it justification for some of its specialized facilities. However, its placement in Washington, DC and its patient population (veterans and citizens of the District of Columbia) also mattered. The American Red Cross, veterans’ groups, and the Knights of Columbus, as well as other civic organizations had easy access for volunteer work and aid of various kinds; the Canton Asylum had to depend on the kindness of small-town organizations like volunteer ministers and the Canton Band to help its patients.

However, both organizations had areas of weakness that investigations brought to light.

Dining Room at McLean Asylum for the Insane

Dining Room at McLean Asylum for the Insane

Bear Cubs at St. Elizabeths' Zoological Gardens

Bear Cubs at St. Elizabeths’ Zoological Gardens

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