Tag Archives: BIA

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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Why All the Concern?

Harvest Dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo

Harvest Dance at Santo Domingo Pueblo

The controversy over Native American dancing did not arise all at once, of course (see last post). European settlers were often surprised at the energy and freedom inherent in many ceremonial dances, but unfortunately attributed much of it to the “uncivilized” status of Native Americans. Continue reading

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Fear of Dancing

Hopi Clowns Next to a Line of Dancers in the Long Hair Dance, 1912, courtesy Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation

Hopi Clowns Next to a Line of Dancers in the Long Hair Dance, 1912, courtesy Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation

Though the federal government wanted to suppress anything that kept Native Americans from assimilating into white culture, dancing seemed to be of special concern. Dances were central to many traditional rituals and ceremonies, and therefore, suspect. Continue reading

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Philosophical Changes

Interaction Between Wampanoag Nation and Colonists, engraving courtesy Library of Congress

As colonists became citizens of the United States, two great forces emerged to pit themselves against the Native American way of life. One was a desire for westward expansion on the part of whites, and the other was a desire from religious leaders and organizations to “uplift” Native Americans from their own religions, cultures and ways of thinking into European and Christian ones.

It was a huge undertaking for either of these newly arrived forces. The territory west of the settled eastern seaboard area was vast and unexplored by those wishing to inhabit it. The peoples and cultures that religious organizations sought to change were just as widely dispersed and different. The government divided Native American culture into several groups: The Northern Fishermen, Seed Gatherers, Navaho Shepherds, Pueblo Farmers, Desert Dwellers, Hunters of the Plains, and Woodsmen of Eastern Forests (and later, various divisions within Alaska).* These large divisions included hundreds of different tribes. To imagine that an incoming people like the early colonists could impose their culture on all these others seems inconceivable, yet in just a few decades, the new nation began to send out explorers and plant the seeds to do just that.

 

*These divisions are taken from A History of Indian Policy by S. Lyman Tyler, United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Washington, D.C., 1973.

Rand McNally Map of Western Expansion

Map Created by Anthropologists Clark Wissler and Alfred Kroeber Showing Various Indian Cultures

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Cultural Considerations

St. Dymphna

One of the worst problems for patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was the lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of the institution’s staff (and throughout the Bureau of Indian Affairs). No greater contrast to the BIA’s handling of the insane can be found, perhaps, than the treatment the insane received in Gheel, Belgium.

Though the reality might not have been quite as idyllic as often portrayed, there is little to criticize in the underlying premise behind this town’s attitude toward the insane. Originally, insane patients were brought to the shrine of St. Dymphna (the patron saint of people suffering from nervous and mental afflictions), who is buried at Gheel. Many patients were said to have been healed there, but others were left at the shrine to be cared for by villagers. For nearly a thousand years, mental patients have lived with host families in the town of Gheel or with families in the surrounding countryside. They worked, went into town, participated in amusements, and enjoyed most of the same life events that their hosts did. The result was almost complete de-institutionalization for these patients, and they certainly were given care within their own culture.

Gheel had an asylum where patients received initial care or stayed for a time before being assigned to a family. There were isolation cells at the asylum for the violent insane, but otherwise, no restraints were used. Though many alienists admired the community at Gheel and its method of treating the insane, most acknowledged that it couldn’t be copied very easily elsewhere.

Isolation Cell from Kew Asylum, Victoria, Australia circa 1870

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School and Work

Boys Working at an Indian Boarding School, location unknown, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The Indian Office liked to hire Native Americans who had been educated in its boarding school system, figuring that graduates would be more familiar with white American culture than people who had stayed on reservations. Unfortunately, many boarding school educations prepared students for entry level work rather than supervisory positions. Students frequently spent half their school day in manual labor rather than academics, and then worked as servants in white homes during vacations.

Charles Eastman (1858-1939) was an exception to this typical educational path. He attended mission schools and later Beloit (a private college), before graduating from Dartmouth in 1887. He then attended Boston University, graduated in 1889, and became the first Native American with a certified European-type medical degree. Eastman worked in the Indian Health Service within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (known at that time as the Indian Office) and was able to minister to Native Americans casualties at Wounded Knee.

Charles Eastman, 1897, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Charles Eastman, 1913, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

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Other Obstacles to Health Care

Everyone Helped the War Effort, courtesy baylor.edu

The Bureau of Indian Affair’s efforts to provide health care to Indians was always hit or miss (see last post). One of the obstacles to providing quality–and timely–care resulted from the vast expanses of land out West. Reservation lands could include acreage that rivaled that of some states, but often only one or two doctors were assigned to cover these huge areas. Even if the Indian population had been in comparatively superb health, doctors’ travel time would have prevented them from seeing many patients. Officials knew that many Indians suffered from serious health problems, but didn’t have the personnel to minister to them effectively.

World War I created more problems. Physicians throughout the Indian Service bailed out to work instead for the U.S. Army or to work in the civilian sector; both venues usually meant better pay. The government concentrated most of its construction and supply effort on the army rather than civilian organizations, and there was little done in the way of new construction or even repairs, stateside. Even if the government had wanted to ramp up its efforts to build hospitals and clinics, or provide better health care, it faced the same manpower shortages affecting the rest of the country. Most young, healthy men were overseas or in war-critical positions stateside, and unavailable for more ordinary concerns. Dr. Harry Hummer had such a problem finding and keeping staff at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians that he implored the Indian Office to raise wages so he could fill positions.

Base Hospital 21, Organized in One Week

Nurse Helen Grace McClelland, Who Served at Base #10 Hospital in France, courtesy University of Pennsylvania

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Indian Health Programs

President Taft Speaking at Manassas Court House, Virginia in 1911, courtesy Library of Congress

The Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to address the many health issues developing among tribes who had lost their traditional lands, lifestyles, and occupations. However, funds were always far too short to do much good, and healthcare was not provided with any kind of continuity. As time went on and the country began to use  surveys and statistics as a basis for action, the government surveyed reservations and schools to discover the extent of the sanitation and health issues which were being reported. When President Taft received the information, which showed a high incidence of tuberculosis and trachoma (an eye disease which often led to blindness), along with a scarcity of medical care, he was shocked.

“The death rate of the Indian country is 35 per thousand as compared with 15 per thousand–the average death rate of the United States as a whole . . .,” he told Congress in 1911. “Last year, of 42,000 Indians examined for disease, over 16 percent of them had trachoma . . . . Of the 40,000 Indians examined, 6,000 had tuberculosis.” Taft asked Congress for more money to go toward Indian health care. . . . “It is our immediate duty to give the race a fair chance for an unmaimed birth, healthy childhood, and a physically efficient maturity.”

Appropriations for Indian medical service rose from $40,000 in 1911 to $350,000 in 1918.

A Grandfather and Two of His Grandchildren Infected With Trachoma, Rincon Reservation, Californina in 1912, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Group Picture at the Phoenix Indian School Tuberculosis Sanitorium Phoenix, AZ, circa 1890-1910, courtesy National Institutes of Health

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BIA Supervision

Cato Sells

The Bureau of Indian Affairs expanded over time, as many other government offices did. In its 1913 report to Congress, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (Cato Sells) noted that the Indian Office had received 77,000 letters in 1902 and employed 132  people, but had received 209,000 letters and had employed 227 people by 1911. The commissioner presented his office in the most positive light as he highlighted the strides and failures of the past few years.

He specifically discussed the discovery of petroleum in Indian Territory. In a special report about petroleum in 1902, the Census Bureau had barely noted the existence of 13 wells there. The land was occupied by the Five Civilized Tribes, though the Secretary of the Interior had authority over it through the Curtis Act of 1898. By 1912, Oklahoma was second among oil-producing states, and pumped out almost one-fifth of all the petroleum produced in the U.S.

The wealth represented by Oklahoma’s oil consequently focused greedy attention on the Indians who were supposed to benefit from it. The next post will continue this topic.

Hoy Oil Field on Black Bear Creek near Enid, Oklahoma, circa 1917, courtesy Library of Congress

Oil Wells in Bartlesville, Oklahoma

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Understanding the American Indian Girl

Cree Indian Girls, 1871, courtesy Library of Congress

In 1928, the Department of the Interior put out a pamphlet entitled “The Social Heritage of the Indian Girl.” Prepared at the request of the commissioner of Indian Affairs, the information in it was an attempt to help the pamphlet’s audience (mainly educators) see that the problematic behaviors of female Indian students had much to do with culture, rather than active misbehavior or backwardness.

What is the Indian girl like? asked the narrator, and went on to list the questions many “interested” parties typically asked about them. Some of these were:

— Why are Indian girls so often silent when they could explain if they would?

— Why can we never depend upon them to do things on time?

— Why are they so slow?

— Why are they always borrowing others possessions and giving theirs away?

— When will they ever learn to reason things out instead of just following their impulses?

To counter these questions, the pamphlet went through each one and gave sometimes patronizing explanations. It explained silence, for instance, by commencing with a hypothetical situation in which a little reservation girl first came to a classroom. When the teacher asked her a question, the little girl couldn’t speak. To think that an important person representing the Great White Father wanted information from her! Instead of replying, the little girl could only hang her head.

Some information contained in the pamphlet was useful, particularly a discussion concerning the importance of the group (clan or tribe), rather than the individual, within Indian society.

Puyallup Woman, Minnie Richards, 1899, courtesy Library of Congress

Paiute Indian Girls, circa 1914, courtesy Library of Congress

 

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