Category Archives: Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians in South Dakota was also known as Hiawatha. It opened in December 1902 and closed in 1934 after charges of neglect and abuse were validated. Dr. Harry Reid Hummer and Oscar Sherman Gifford were its only two superintendents. Its only patients were Native Americans, typically called Indians. It was the only federal insane asylum created solely for an ethnic group and served only Indians.

The Patient’s Voice

Reverend Chase's Book

Reverend Chase’s Book

A number of [insane] asylum patients eventually wrote about their experiences once they were released. A commonality that many of these accounts reveal is the lack of due process in the commitment process. In 1868, Reverend Hiram Chase wrote about his experience:

“. . . on the 20th of August, 1863, about 9 o’clock in the morning, I was called out of my room to dress and take a ride as far as the depot. . . I got into the wagon with three men besides myself. As I got into the wagon and saw my trunk, I enquired where they were going. Mr. Harvey told me I was going to the asylum in Utica.”*

Postcard of the Utica State Hospital for the Insane, 1907

Postcard of the Utica State Hospital for the Insane, 1907

Chase had previously described what was probably an episode of deep depression, brought on by hearing some unkind gossip about himself from church members. His own physician and another one had called upon Chase, and discussed an incident in which he had tried to get rid of a solution of silver nitrate, fearing that it would harm someone or some animal. His wife and family may have thought Chase had obtained the bottle of silver nitrate solution in order to hurt himself, though he had evidently made it abundantly clear he was getting rid of the contents. Regardless, the doctors got a warrant from the local judge after this interview, to take Chase to Utica.

Utica Crib, a Restraining Device Developed at the Utica

Utica Crib, a Restraining Device Developed at the Utica

Chase ends his first chapter with this: “We arrived there the same day, and I was locked up in the third story of the building, with about forty raving maniacs. Others may judge of my feelings when I sat down and looked around me. . . .”

*Two Years in a Lunatic Asylum; Van Benthuysen & Sons’ Steam Printing House.

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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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Worthy of Report

Dakota Farmers Leader, a Second Canton SD Newspaper

Dakota Farmers Leader, a Second Canton SD Newspaper

Small-town newspapers of the last century and earlier provided a popular service to readers by extensive reporting on local news. One of Canton, South Dakota’s newspapers, The Sioux Valley News, typically ran “local interest” items in its weekly edition, and did not discriminate on the basis of age, gender, or race when reporting. A few items in the May 29, 1914 edition illustrate the breadth of coverage:

— Harry Milliman was in Canton Saturday training his eye on the needs of the grocers of the town.

— John Hall an Indian patient at the Asylum [for Insane Indians] passed away last week. He came to the Asylum from Sacaton Arizona, but his remains were buried here.

The Canton Asylum

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

— Will Ellingson was down from Harrisburg on Sunday, sampling his mother’s Sunday dinner.

— John Chavis, an Indian from La Guna, N.M. was in Canton last week to take home with him, his daughter, who has been receiving treatment at the Asylum, and whose complete restoration to mental health permitted of her return home.

East Side of Main Street, Canton, SD circa 1912

East Side of Main Street, Canton, SD circa 1912

— P. S. Puckett is building a garage on his Capitol Hill property. When asked why he was building one so large he said that he wanted one large enough so, should necessity require that he could move into it.

— Dr. Hummer and his family took last Monday’s train for Washington, D.C. where they will spend their summer’s vacation visiting at the homes of the parents of both Dr. and Mrs. Hummer and with other relatives and friends.

The latter item meant that the Asylum would be without a physician unless Dr. Hummer had made arrangements for a fill-in.

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Support in Powerful Places

Richard F. Pettigrew Was South Dakota's First Full-Term Senator, courtesy City of Sioux Falls

Richard F. Pettigrew Was South Dakota’s First Full-Term Senator, courtesy City of Sioux Falls

Although a few people may have genuinely believed a separate insane asylum for Indians was a good idea in light of the considerable prejudice Indians faced from the dominant Anglo society, most supporters simply recognized the economic benefits the asylum would provide the community. That was almost certainly the factor that persuaded early politicians to railroad approval for the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians through Congress. Senator Richard F. Pettigrew wanted the asylum on behalf of his constituents in South Dakota, as did other South Dakotan politicians afterward.

In 1907, a laudatory newspaper article about Senator A. B. Kittredge noted his support for the asylum. “This asylum means much to Canton, and it can be truthfully said that during the years of Senator Kittredge’s work in the senate he has never forgotten Canton or its one Federal institution,” the paper said. Then the article’s writer went on to say much more than he probably meant to:

“While the sentiment in the senate has been against it [the asylum] most strongly, the senator has stood for the full appropriation of $25,000, and has always succeeded in landing it, and with the sentiment against it he has succeeded in getting through additional appropriations; last

Kittredge Was an Accomplished Politician

Kittredge Was an Accomplished Politician

year $3,500 for the purpose of building a water plant; and on the first of March of this year an additional appropriation was secured of $6,000 for the purpose of building additional laundry facilities, which are much needed at the asylum.”

Few in Congress supported Pettigrew when he introduced his bill to fund an Indian insane asylum, and few supported it afterward. South Dakota’s politicians were the driving force behind Canton Asylum’s creation and continued existence.

Opening of 60th Congress, Dec 2, 1907, courtesy Library of Congress

Opening of 60th Congress, Dec 2, 1907, courtesy Library of Congress

 

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Maybe A Little Bit Human

Reading Circles Did More Than Discuss Books

Reading Circles Did More Than Discuss Books

For people who are familiar with the history of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, its second superintendent, Dr. Harry R. Hummer can seem so indifferent, arrogant, and spiteful, that it becomes difficult to understand how he ever married or made friends. However, even some of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ own inspection reports show that Dr. Hummer could be both a good host and most charming when it suited him.

An item in the February 3, 1914 issue of The Sioux Valley News describes a Reading Circle meeting at Mrs. Hummer’s “apartments at the Hiawatha Asylum on Thursday.” After the business session, the ladies went into “the household laboratory where she had everything in readiness for serving a most tempting three course chafing dish luncheon.”

Craftsman Style Kitchen from 1914

Craftsman Style Kitchen from 1914

Dr. Hummer was already in the kitchen, trying to make whipped cream. “As we came in he announced that the cream would not thicken, of course every housekeeper was going to give him some advice but he quickly handed over his pretty white apron and disappeared and we never saw him again until Mrs. Hummer sent for him and their two fine sons with their little guest, Merle Chraft, to come and partake of some of that whipped cream fixed up with all kinds of good fruit and nuts making a dandy good salad, such a salad as even the men enjoy.”

The Hummers May Have Used a Beater Like This for Their Whipped Cream

The Hummers May Have Used a Beater Like This for Their Whipped Cream

Dr. Hummer later entertained the gentlemen who came to pick up their wives, and everyone apparently enjoyed themselves immensely. Though he was obviously in a different environment than his working one, accounts such as these show another side to Hummer which is difficult to reconcile with his professional character.

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A Powerful Platform

Selection of American Newspapers with Portraits of their Publishers, 1885, courtesy Wikipedia

Selection of American Newspapers with Portraits of their Publishers, 1885, courtesy Wikipedia

Newspaper editors at the turn of the 20th century were powerful opinion-makers who could use their papers to reach and influence a wide audience. Many newspaper articles of the period do not have bylines, but we can assume that few editors allowed writers’ pieces to go through if they did not agree with their own stance on the issues. A story from the April 22, 1904 issue of Canton, South Dakota’s The Sioux Valley News is a good example of the way newspaper editors made their biases plain.

The headline was “Goes Wet,” and began: “With feelings that cannot be expressed THE NEWS is obliged to record the fact that after eighteen years of existence without open saloons Canton has opened her door and invited the saloon to enter.” The writer complimented “the good old Third [ward]”, which had “stood its ground and beat back the friends of the saloon as it did one year ago.”

Editorial Question in New-York Tribute, March 1913

Editorial Question in New-York Tribune, March 1913

The chagrin of the writer is apparent in some of his following words: “THE NEWS is not ready to assert that all who voted for license, did so because they were evil minded.” However, he made it plain that most of the voters had to have been misguided. Saloon supporters evidently had campaigned on the idea that saloons would bring in more business and eliminate some of the illicit hole-in-the-wall establishments evidently in operation in Canton. The paper’s powers-that-be waited sarcastically “for the decrease in drunkenness and the dawn of the promised millennium which we have been assured the saloons would bring.”

An Inflammatory Sketch of a Woman Being Strip Searched Ran in a Hearst Newspaper

An Inflammatory Sketch of a Woman Being Strip Searched Ran in a Hearst Newspaper

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Spinning . . . and Spinning

Carnegie Library in Canton, South Dakota, Built With a 1904 Grant

Carnegie Library in Canton, South Dakota, Built With a 1904 Grant

The editor of the Canton, South Dakota newspaper, The Sioux Valley News, was like many people everywhere and during any time period, a great supporter of his community. The paper printed almost nothing of a negative nature about the city and its projects, and generally had glowing accolades for whatever event or institution it discussed. In an article about the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians (“Asylum Needs Larger Quarters”) from 1926, the paper’s writer gave a sanitized and spectacularly positive spin to the creation and ongoing administration of the facility.

Following a summary concerning the asylum’s creation after Senator Pettigrew became aware of the need for it, the writer briefly described its early years under Oscar Gifford’s leadership. Then he discussed the arrival of its first patients:

“A queer particular about the early admissions was that in-as-much as an asylum was a new experience for the untutored Indian, and there lurked in his mind some misgivings as to the treatment their afflicted ones might receive in an asylum, the whole family, in some cases, came along with the patient to satisfy themselves that everything was honest and above board.

Canton, S.D. Railroad Depot

Canton, S.D. Railroad Depot

“This suspicious attitude gradually gave place to an air of confidence in the good intentions of the government. Those whose fears had been thus allayed, no doubt spread the word of their satisfaction among their brethren, and of late years, these family accompanyings have about entirely disappeared.”

Young Oglala Girl In Front of Tipi, Probably On or Near Pine Ridge Reservation, courtesy Library of Congress

Young Oglala Girl In Front of Tipi, Probably On or Near Pine Ridge Reservation, courtesy Library of Congress

These latter statements are difficult to believe, since there is no evidence whatsoever that Canton Asylum held a good reputation within the Native community. It is only slightly less difficult to believe that many families had the money to accompany their loved one to the asylum unless they lived nearby.

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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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