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.

Healthy Minds and Bodies

Oregon State Insane Asylum, circa 1900

Oregon State Insane Asylum, circa 1900

Factors in the way alienists (early experts in mental health) treated the insane arose from the medical field’s understanding of the mind. In certain ways, physicians (and alienists) were surprisingly ahead of their time, since they believed that the mind profoundly affected the body. However, they often over-emphasized this aspect of the mind-body connection to arrive at simplistic or sometimes surprising conclusions.

In her 1906 book, The Perfect Woman, Mary R. Melendy discusses this mind-body connection during pregnancy. ” . . . we met with a youth who had finely molded limbs and a symmetrical form throughout,” she says. Melendy stated that the mother did not have this same symmetry or beauty and then continued, “The boy is doubtless indebted for his fine form to the presence of a beautiful French lithograph in his mother’s sleeping apartment, and which is presented for her contemplation the faultless form of a naked child.” Melendy likewise attributed the presence of so many beautiful Italian girls to the prevalence of Madonna images throughout the country.

Melendy's Book on Womanhood

Melendy’s Book on Womanhood

Gibson Girls Were Considered Ideal Images for Womanhood in the 1800s

Gibson Girls Were Considered Ideal Images for Womanhood in the 1890s

This belief that the mind could affect the body so profoundly was one reason alienists felt it was important to take patients from their homes–where their mental illness originated–and shelter them in asylums. There, new habitats and calming scenery could lead disturbed minds toward a new perspective. Recreational activities, mild distractions, and (and at least in the early days of asylums) quality time with a sympathetic asylum physician, were ways to divert a patient’s thoughts from “wrong” views and toward a more beneficial outlook.

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Hiawatha Insane Asylum Honoring Ceremony for 2017

The Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story and local historians are hosting the annual Honoring Ceremony at the Asylum cemetery on July 29, 2017. The address is:

2400 E. 5th St.; Canton, SD 57013. Please note that the cemetery is located on the grounds of the Hiawatha Golf Club. The following will be of particular interest:

2:00 p.m.: The Sacred Horse Society will ride through Canton to the Asylum cemetery (address above)

3:00 p.m.: Gathering at the Asylum cemetery site for the Honoring

A potluck will follow, so attendees should bring food to share. This moving, respectful event will be held rain or shine. For further information or with questions, contact:

Ross Lothrop, Chair, Keepers of the Story at 605-261-6717 or

Anne Dilenschneider, Secretary, Keepers of the Story 605-906-5404

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And the Living Wasn’t Easy

Lewis Hines Photo of Oyster Shuckers in Port Royal, South Carolina, early 1900s, courtesy Library of Congress

Lewis Hines Photo of Oyster Shuckers in Port Royal, South Carolina, early 1900s, courtesy Library of Congress

When reformers first began to champion the use of insane asylums in the 1830s, these institutions really did tend to operate as the havens they were meant to be. Life was harsh everywhere for most people: there were few protections for workers, public aid for the weak or disabled scarcely existed, and bodily comfort might mean no more than a slice of bread and a straw-filled sack to sleep on.

It was an age when a professor at the Paris Faculty of Medicine could safely state: “The abolishment of pain in surgery is a chimera. It is absurd to go on seeking it . . . Knife and pain are two words in surgery that must forever be associated in the consciousness of the patient.”

When surgeons scoffed at the idea of easing pain for (presumably) paying patients, what comfort could lunatics–who supposedly did not feel pain, cold, or hunger–expect? When Dorothea Dix began her crusade to provide compassionate care to the insane, she wrote graphically about the filth and misery she found in jails and outbuildings where the mentally ill were held as prisoners. Once asylums were established, however, these patients could expect decent food, clean bedding, warmth and ventilation, and human attention.

Reformer Dorothea Dix

Reformer Dorothea Dix

Newspaper Article from April 14, 1940

Newspaper Article from April 14, 1940

Conditions deteriorated quickly as families filled asylums with relatives they either did not want or could not handle. Some asylums became little better than the dark and filthy jails they had replaced, and certainly did not help their patients to recover. Coming full circle, reformers again began to agitate on behalf of the insane–to release or “de-institutionalize” them.

 

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An Easy Way to Grab Land

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Indian Inspector George Wright, courtesy Oklahoma State Digital Library

Many whites wanted access to Indian lands, and there were plenty of politicians who were glad to help them. Guy P. Cobb was typical. He held a position as the Creek Revenue Inspector (appointed through the recommendation of Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones, 1897-1904) and had served under Indian Inspector George J. Wright.

While he was a revenue inspector, Cobb was also general manager of the Tribal Development Company, which Cobb said “helped” Indians manage their land. How? Cobb’s company negotiated rental agreements with Indians–with the option to buy their land as soon as any restrictions were removed. He further assisted them by helping them find “good” allotments. Additionally, (and, of course, quite usefully) Cobb was one of the directors of the Bank of the Chickasaw Nation.

Cobb was not the only politician involved in trust companies, and Samuel M. Brosius of the Indian Rights Association named names in his special report on the land speculation. Dawes commissioners Thomas Needles and C. R. Breckinridge, U.S. District Attorney E. Pliny Soper, assistant U.S. District Attorney for the Northern District of the Indian Territory James Huckleberry, Indian Inspector Wright, and many other politicians and Indian Office employees were involved in various trust companies.

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Clifton Rodes Breckenridge of the Dawes Commission, courtesy Biographical Directory of the United States Congress

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

Indian Land Was Highly Desirable

These companies typically induced Indians to rent their allotted lands for about five years, but then wouldn’t surrender the land after that period and/or refused to pay rent on it. Any heirs of the allottees were then manipulated into selling the land for little money. Even though allotted land was not actually vested in title for 25 years, the courts generally looked the other way at these dealings.

The losers in these arrangements were always the very people the Indian Office and Interior Department had been charged with protecting.

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Your Land is Our Land

Ojibwe Girls in a Classroom at the St. Benedict's Mission School, White Earth Reservation, circa 1900

Ojibwe Girls in a Classroom at the St. Benedict’s Mission School, White Earth Reservation, circa 1900

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ mission was always to “manage” Indian relations, but its mission changed over time until “civilizing” Indians through the reservation system became its primary one. Part of the Indian Office’s (which the agency was more generally known by) policy included dismantling traditional tribal governments and assimilating native peoples into the broader white culture.

The Chicago Daily News, 1901

The Chicago Daily News, 1901

As it did so, the Indian Office allowed disservice after disservice to Native Americans. In 1903, a Washington dispatch to the Chicago Daily News discussed an emerging scandal which the paper then covered. The Interior Department and the Justice Department had become interested in companies trying to acquire Indian land at “ridiculously low figures and selling them at their actual values.” Bad in itself, the article also reported that: “Members of the Dawes commission are said to be implicated in the alleged efforts ‘to fleece the Indians.'”

Cartoon of Indian Agent, courtesy Library of Congress

Cartoon of Indian Agent, courtesy Library of Congress

The irony, as the paper put it, was that “in several instances the very men who are now implicated in the effort to fleece the Indians came to Washington to consult with the heads of the departments (Interior and Justice) here in devising a plan for the Indians’ protection.”

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Falling Silent

A Collection of Native American Vocabular, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

A Collection of Native American Vocabulary, courtesy American Philosophical Museum

Languages around the world have been lost over time, and this loss continues. The reference work Ethnologue lists 245 indigenous languages in the United States, with 65 already extinct and 75 near extinction.

This language loss happened in several ways. A prominent cause came from the federal government’s push to eradicate Native American culture. Children were taken from their homes to boarding schools and forbidden to use their native languages. By the time they came back home, many had forgotten it. As native peoples dispersed into cities and used English, their original languages also fell into misuse. Though there are documents that have recorded many native languages, they cannot document the vocal attributes of the language–often an important part of understanding the language’s meaning. These languages also includes concepts and culture which cannot be replicated in English.

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

Anthropologist Frank Speck and Delaware Lenape Chief Witapanoxwe, circa 1928, courtesy American Philosophical Society

People are making attempts to preserve languages. The Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages has partnered with the National Geographic Society to form the Enduring Voices Project to preserve particularly unique, poorly understood, or threatened indigenous languages. TheĀ  Administration For Native Americans also provides grants to native communities and nonprofits to teach young people to speak native languages.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of Ethnology collected audio recordings of Native American languages in the 19th century. You can hear digitized snippets of these languages at the Smithsonian’s site, http://siris.si.edu. In the blue box on the right hand side under “Culture & History” click “Native American Language.” In the new page, on the left hand side under “online media” click “sound recordings.”

Ethnogropher Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

Ethnographer Alice Cunningham Fletcher and Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce

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The People Report

Yankton Insane Asylum

Yankton Insane Asylum

Early newspapers performed a social function by letting their readers know what fellow citizens were doing. Papers in larger cities usually confined their news to the well-to-do or the socially prominent, but small town papers reported on ordinary citizens–sometimes on matters that families might have preferred to keep private. On June 10, 1904, Canton’s The Sioux Valley News said: “Last Friday an attendant came up from Yankton and returned on the afternoon train, taking with him John Bergstrom and Axel Olson who will be placed in the hospital for the insane for treatment.”

On the same page, a somewhat unflattering item read: “Wm. Robinson Jr., arrived from Chicago Monday noon for a few days’ visit with his parents in his city. Billy . . . looks natural. However he has grown much heavier since becoming a resident of Chicago.”

The Railroad Depot in Canton Would Have Been the Start of Many Trips

The Railroad Depot in Canton Would Have Been the Start of Many Trips

Newspapers reported on citizens’ visits and trips much as we post items on social media today. “J. C. Neyhart left Wednesday afternoon for Maxwell, Iowa to visit his daughter . . . Ed L. Wendt took a trip up to Wolsey Wednesday in company with some prospective land buyers . . . Dr. Chas. W. Morrison went over to Inwood Monday afternoon to look after some business matters,” are typical items from a 1909 edition of The Sioux Valley News.

A Family Taking a Trip Would Have Made Been an Interesting Social Item to Report

A Family Taking a Trip Would Have Made Been an Interesting Social Item to Report

Such gossipy details about their fellow townspeople probably connected and unified the community, but newspapers could also filter their news. Because The Sioux Valley News was so upbeat and pro-Canton in its reporting, it failed to inform citizens about abuses or problems at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Some specifics may have been neatly hushed by the asylum’s management, but the paper’s editor undoubtedly knew about many of its problems and failed to report on them.

 

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About Town

Conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt in the North Dakota Badlands in the 1880s

Conservationist President Teddy Roosevelt in the North Dakota Badlands in the 1880s

Newspapers provide a vivid and informative snapshot into the past which cannot be easily duplicated. In the January 29, 1909 issue of Canton’s The Sioux Valley News, an item (with no byline) appeared that urged Americans to take President Theodore Roosevelt’s conservation message seriously. The writer explained: “Everywhere our resources are being wasted. . . We are depleting our soil, wasting our native timber, allowing our streams to carry away the best of the land, half managing our mines and especially draining our wonderful artesian well supply.”

One column over is a piece titled “So Deceptive,” which begins: “Backache is so deceptive. It comes and goes–keeps you guessing. Learn the cause–then cure it. Nine times out of ten it comes from the kidneys. That’s why Doan’s Kidney Pills cure it. Cure every kidney ill from backache to diabetes.” This introduction is followed by a long testimonial from a Canton citizen.

Doan's Pills Claimed to be a Remedy for Serious Issues in This Ad From 1914

Doan’s Pills Claimed to be a Remedy for Serious Issues in This Ad From 1914

Below that is a notice of teacher examinations, and in another column, an article about Queen Victoria of Spain’s attempts to abolish bullfighting in her country. The rest of the page is filled with ads for lumber and hardware, as well as an offer for a one-year subscription to both La Follette’s Weekly Magazine (edited by Senator A. M. Lafollette) and The Sioux Valley News for $2.25 in advance.

A week later, ads show that raisins are 6 cents for a one-pound package, four cans of sweet corn are 25 cents, and two tall cans of pink salmon are 25 cents.

Grocery Ad from an Allentown, PA Newspaper, 1910

Grocery Ad from an Allentown, PA Newspaper, 1910

 

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Time and Tasking

Family Life Could Be Ovewhelming, While Still Not Comparable to Caring for Adults in an Asylum

Family Life Could Be Ovewhelming, While Still Not Comparable to Caring for Adults in an Asylum

Ward attendants were the backbone of patient care in asylums, and their attitudes and skills could make or break a patient’s experience (see last post). At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, attendants were never trained and very likely relied on their home experiences with raising children or being around perhaps difficult family members. The stress and tempo of caring for several children at home might mimic some of the tasks of attendants, but it made a difference that attendants were usually dealing with adults rather than children. Carrying a small child to a bath–even an unwilling one–might be stressful, but a parent would prevail. That might not be so true in the asylum setting. Here are just some of the routine tasks male attendants were expected to complete for ten or more patients each day:

— wake patients up (6:00 a.m.) and see that each patient washes his face and hand, and combs his hair

— attend the morning cleaning, bedmaking and tidying of the ward

— see that the lavatories, tubs, toilets and urinals are in good working order and not leaking. Fixtures are to be washed whenever necessary and scrubbed with a cleaning powder at least once daily. All faucets are to be polished whenever necessary

— all wood work is to be rubbed down once daily with an oiled cloth

Willard Asylum Patients Working in the Sewing Room. Structured Activities Made Supervision Easier for Attendants

Willard Asylum Patients Working in the Sewing Room. Structured Activities Made Supervision Easier for Attendants

In addition to these duties, attendants had to take patients to the dining room, feed those who could not feed themselves, bathe and change the clothing (or at least clean and change) patients who soiled themselves, take each able-bodied patient outdoors for exercise at least twice daily, shave them once a week, give them haircuts and trim their nails, and on and on. Patients were always to be supervised, and attendants were never to leave their wards except if duty required. Before doing that, they had to make sure no patient had a lighted pipe or cigarette, etc.

Agnews Insane Asylum Patients Eating Lunch, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

Agnews Insane Asylum Patients Eating Lunch, courtesy Detroit Public Library Digital Collections

It is little wonder that being an attendant was not an attractive job, and didn’t usually draw people who could get easier work with better pay, elsewhere.

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