Tag Archives: Cato Sells

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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Who Stayed at Canton Asylum?

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1921

Admissions to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were routed through reservation Indian agents (later superintendents), who performed much of the administrative and supervisory functions concerned with running these population centers. The asylum usually had several dozen applications on file, and tried to fill vacancies with patients who had been waiting the longest. Sometimes urgent or acute cases took precedence, but there were always more applications than room at the asylum. Dr. Harry Hummer was often accused of poor record-keeping, but he was apparently required to take a “census” of patients at the end of each fiscal year (June 30). Not all of these survive, but those that do at least give a snapshot of the asylum population. In 1921:

There were 45 male and 45 female patients. Since opening, there had been 146 male and 114 female patients, so the patient population tended to skew male.

There were 28 tribes represented. Since opening, 50 tribes were represented. The greatest numbers of patients came from the Chippewa, Menominee, and Sioux, with the latter being highest. This undoubtedly resulted because the asylum was located near Sioux reservations; studies had always shown that asylums served more people in close geographic range than farther out. States that tried to locate asylums centrally to be fair to an entire region were frustrated in these attempts because of this natural pattern.

Since opening, 62 patients had died of respiratory diseases, mainly tuberculosis (45) and croupous pneumonia (9). From 1903 to 1921, 115 patients had died.

TB Sanitorium Buildings, Phoenix Indian School circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Archives

Alaskan TB Patients, courtesy Indian Health Service

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Native Americans And WWI

Otis W. Leader, Depicted by a French Artist as the Ideal American Soldier

Many people are familiar with the military contributions of Native American Code Talkers during WWII, but don’t know about Native American contributions to the Great War. Over 17,000 males registered for the draft, but many other men volunteered to enter the military. Data on these volunteers are not as  firm, but perhaps half of all Native Americans who enlisted were volunteers. Proportionally, as many or more Native Americans served in the military as other adult American men. Tribal participation rates varied: Oklahoma tribes entered the military at the highest rates, while Navajo and Pueblo men served at the lowest.*

Students from Indian boarding schools like Carlisle volunteered in great numbers, which may have been due both to their familiarity with the military from their school experience as well as a desire to get away from the boarding school environment. Almost without a voice of dissent, whites in authority  over these students–all the way up to commissioner of Indian Affairs, Cato Sells–approved of this massive exodus into the military. They attributed it to the success of the Indian Office’s assimilation policy and patriotism on the part of students. Both these factors may have entered into student decisions to enlist, but a thirst for adventure and an equally powerful hatred of their substandard schools were probably just as contributory. Unfortunately, some of these enthusiastic students were underage, with teachers (as the only adults even able to stand in as pseudo-parents) usually turning a blind eye or actually encouraging enlistment.

*Statistics about Native American participation in the military during WWI are taken from Russel Lawrence Barsh’s “American Indians in the Great War; Ethnohistory 38:3 (Summer, 1991).

Gus Sharlow, Ojibwa WWI Veteran, courtesy Wisconsin Historical Images

Parade Field at Carlisle Barracks in Carlisle, PA, courtesy U. S. Army

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Hummer’s Advantages

Commissioner Charles Rhoads, on left, courtesy Library of Congress

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, superintendent Dr. Harry R.  Hummer was far enough away from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to avoid direct supervision. Hummer outlasted five commissioners: Francis Leupp, Robert Valentine, Cato Sells, Charles Burke, and Charles Rhoads before commissioner John Collier threw him out of the asylum and the Indian Service.

One advantage Hummer had–as did other superintendents elsewhere–was that locals wanted the asylum to remain open and running. Insane asylums represented huge boosts to  local economies. Most towns or cities where asylums were located were quite happy about having them, and were proud of the work they did. Canton was no different. Locals enjoyed the employment and local contracts that came from the asylum and usually spoke of it quite enthusiastically.

When Hummer began to finally receive less than glowing reports, he managed to have some friends in Sioux Falls appointed as an inspection committee. They came through for him in a report to Commissioner Charles Burke early in 1929. “We went through the plant thoroughly from top to bottom and . . . found everything in first class condition.” The writer then concluded, “I consider Dr. Harry Hummer a wonderful superintendent of this institution and he has many fine employees.”

Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs

Sample Asylum Report, courtesy University of North Carolina

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Who Oversees the Asylum?

Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Cato Sells

Asylum superintendents were very powerful, but they were (theoretically) denied free rein. Most asylums had a board of directors or a board of commissioners to give oversight to the entire asylum, including the superintendent. Boards were often composed of local men who might be assumed to know what was going on, though sometimes board members had to travel from a distance to meet. Not all boards had direct hiring and firing authority, however, and could run into problems controlling or disciplining a superintendent protected by appointment.

At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, superintendents reported directly to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on the other side of the country. No boards met on a regular basis to supervise the asylum, though visiting doctors within the Indian Service occasionally stopped by to inspect and report on the facility. Because they weren’t trained in psychiatry and therefore not competent to discuss patient treatment, most inspectors concentrated on the physical part of the institution, commenting more on its buildings and farming operation than anything else. Sometimes the inspectors were not even doctors, but merely field agents who happened to be in the area. Because of this situation, it was generally easy for superintendents Gifford and Hummer to explain away any problems inspectors might bring up.

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Difficult to Leave

Cato Sells, Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1913-1921)

Allen Owl, a patient at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, demonstrates how difficult it was to convince Dr. Hummer that a patient could safely leave his care. Owl wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs on December 16, 1919, and ended his letter by saying: “Would be glad to get my discharge from this place. Also will obey the public & government laws from now on.”

Hummer wrote to the commissioner in reply: . . . “In other words he is about as well as he ever will be. He has a good home here, is well taken care of, is well-behaved and trusted with parole privileges of the grounds and an occasional pass to town to the picture shows. In addition to which he was permitted to work with neighboring farmers this season, earning about one hundred and fifty or sixty dollars.”

Unfortunately for Owl, Hummer added, “This, however, does not mean that he could or would do as well were he discharged and thrown upon his own resources. . . . Accordingly, I must recommend adversely to his request and hope that your Office will write him a nice letter to that effect.”

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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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Teach Your Natives Well

Book for Indian Mothers

Book for Indian Mothers

There was no subject at all, it seems, in which the Indian could not benefit from a little instruction. The pamphlet at the left (created by the Department of the Interior) began with a friendly letter from the commissioner of  Indian Affairs, Cato Sells.

It advised Indian mothers not to feed their babies on demand, but by the clock. It also discouraged strapping babies into the traditional cradle, so they could be carried on the mother’s back.

The pamphlet did warn about serious diseases rampant within Indian communities, like smallpox and consumption. People who might be infected with consumption (TB) were advised not to swallow their spit, as it could then carry the disease to the stomach and bowel. With more practicality, it advised all Indians to get vaccinated for smallpox.

Baby in Cradle, Department of Interior pamphlet

Baby in Cradle, Department of Interior pamphlet

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