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.

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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A Cost Analysis

Lincoln County Courthouse, circa 1902, located in Canton

Lincoln County Courthouse, circa 1902, located in Canton

Interested parties (mainly in South Dakota) wanted an asylum established exclusively for insane Indians, and tried to make a case for it. They met with a complete lack of support from the superintendent (William W. Godding) of the only other federal institution for the insane, St. Elizabeths. Godding pointed out that the costs to maintain the few insane Indians at St. Elizabeths was less than $3,000 a year, while the proposed asylum in South Dakota would cost $150,000 and need an annual expenditure of at least $25,000 to run it. (See last post.)

However, the Indian Office supported the idea of an asylum, and began to gather figures to show how badly it was needed. St. Elizabeths reported that it had seven Indians in care in 1897 (two had been there close to ten years) for a total cost of $9,506.50 for their entire time as patients. The acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs had no figures as to how many insane Indians might actually need a new asylum’s services, but thought that “an asylum that would accommodate fifty patients would be ample.”

Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia, known commonly as St. Elizabeths

Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia, known commonly as St. Elizabeths

When the Commissioner, William Jones, later canvassed the various reservations to ascertain the number of insane Indians on them, most had none. Of the reservation agents who responded, only 58 Indians were found to be insane, with 7 of that number already in asylums. Agents mentioned other Indians as being “idiotic,” but tellingly, not needing help. One agent said that “a few” on his reservation were slightly insane but not requiring restraint in an asylum. (His estimate is not included in the preceding figure.) Of the 51 potential patients actually on reservations, the agents felt only 34 might need asylum care.

Even if all 58 patients had been taken to St. Elizabeths at a cost of $91/quarter ($364 annually), the total annual cost would have been only slightly over $21,000 a year. That was still under the figure Dr. Godding suggested would be needed to run an asylum in South Dakota each year. Clearly, anyone who did the math could see that even with the added transportation costs to St. Elizabeths, a new asylum really wasn’t worth the money for the few patients that might make use of it. Even paying extra at local state asylums (to offset transporting patients to Washington, DC where St. Elizabeths was located) would have been cheaper.

Yet, the asylum was built, staffed, and infrastructure put in place to support it. A later inspector called the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians a “magnificent political gesture” that had done little good for the recipients it had promised to help.

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Canton Asylum Given Much Thought

Richard F. Pettigrew

Richard F. Pettigrew

Though the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians had many problems throughout its operation, the facility itself had been the subject of much consideration before its construction. When Senator Richard F. Pettigrew, Chairman of of the Committee on Indian Affairs, first proposed Senate Bill 2042 (for the purchase of land and construction thereon of an asylum for insane Indians) in 1897, he asked for “not less than one hundred acres of tillable land” and that the building should be constructed of stone or brick with a metal roof, and “shall be as nearly fire-proof as conditions will permit.”

At the time, a few Indians deemed insane had been admitted to the Government Hospital for the Insane (known as St. Elizabeths) at the rate of $91 per quarter. Payment was through the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. The hospital’s superintendent, William W. Godding, noted that he was presently treating five Indians, and that “this number has never been exceeded at any previous date.”

Center Building, St. Elizabeths, 1900

Center Building, St. Elizabeths, 1900

Godding felt that there would be only a small number of Indians who might need psychiatric care, and that to spend $150,000 to purchase land and erect an asylum (Pettigrew’s proposed figure) was unnecessary. He pointed out that even after the asylum’s construction, the government would need to add “an annual expenditure of not less than $25,000 for the equipment and maintenance of the asylum.” Currently the Government Hospital cared for insane Indians at an annual cost of $2,267.

Dr. William W. Godding, courtesy Library of Congress

Dr. William W. Godding, courtesy Library of Congress

Like many other whites of the era, Godding believed that insanity was actually rare among Indians. He continued, “the additional expenditure [that Pettigrew proposed] might be advisable if there was a prospect . . . the number of insane Indians would be very much increased.” But, Godding stated, “the records of the race do not justify any such expectation, rather the opposite.”

Obviously, Godding’s commonsense objections were ignored.

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Exercising Care

Patients and Staff Playing Croquet at Willard Asylum, circa 1880, courtesy Robert Bogdan Collection, disabilitymuseum.org

Patients and Staff Playing Croquet at Willard Asylum, circa 1880, courtesy Robert Bogdan Collection, disabilitymuseum.org

Inspections are simply written and verbal snapshots of an investigator’s particular visit. That visit may have occurred during an exceptionally good or bad time, or during a relatively normal period. Inspections at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians are somewhat erratic in content, but it does seem clear that it was a better-run place during its earlier years. When it was inspected in 1916, the patient population was small enough that the staff could engage with them in a positive way:

“Calisthentics, [sic] breathing exercises, and marching are provided for such patients as are able to receive physical training. The play-ground equipment consists of outfits for baseball, basket ball, quoits, tennis, and one giant stride [slide], six swings, one portable see-saw, one teeter, tennis and a sixteen pound shot, all of which are popular especially the swings and shot. The play-ground exercises are supervised by the attendants.” The inspector added that instruction in hygiene and sanitation “with especial reference to personal cleanliness is given by the attendants.”

At the time, there were 47 patients in the asylum, mainly in their 20s – 40s. Many would have had some physical problems, but in general, they represented a relatively vigorous age group. Attendants and laborers may well have had a little more time than they did later, to interact with patients who were not otherwise taking up a great deal of their time with nursing duties.

Patient Picnic at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, late 1950s

Patient Picnic at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, late 1950s

Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew: female patients exercising Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Female Patients Exercising at the Metropolitan Lunatic Asylum, Kew, Australia, courtesy, Wellcome Library, London

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Combating Smallpox

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Smallpox decimated Native Americans (see last post) after Europeans arrived and spread this virulent disease on a population with no immunity to it. However, the disease was not simply accepted and endured. Though native peoples did not immediately connect smallpox with Europeans, they did understand illness and how to treat it.

Native Americans first turned to traditional medical practices to help combat smallpox. Drums, rattles, and incantations helped patients rally, while fasting and dreaming also followed traditional healing ways. Herbs and oils were used to alleviate discomfort. Unfortunately, the common use of the sweat lodge in treatment may have made a patient’s condition worse, since heat and steam caused sweating and dehydration, while cold water plunges may have overly shocked the body.

The Cherokee developed a Smallpox Dance in the 1830s, and other tribes formed curing societies and developed healing rituals. Families eventually stopped their traditional practice of crowding around a sick patient and allowed a quarantine for those with smallpox; people also avoided traveling to places with active cases, and burned (or thoroughly cleaned) homes where someone had died of smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine was available as early as the 1700s, though Native Americans were not routinely vaccinated. When the vaccine was offered, however, many native peoples took advantage of it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the official vaccination administrator, but missionaries and  traders also urged vaccines. Traders, especially, who cared little for Washington politics and did not need to put white settlers’ needs ahead of their trading partners’, were probably just as successful in helping the vaccination effort as the BIA.

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

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