Posts Tagged ‘commissioner of Indian affairs’

Fear of Dancing

Sunday, July 6th, 2014
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. Even worse, Native American dances were not restrained and constrained like the sedate waltzes of polite white society, but instead, exhibited considerable movement and exhibition. The Bureau of Indian Affairs gathered testimony from (white) eyewitnesses of Native American dancing into a Secret Dance File which was considered obscene because of the graphic descriptions it contained. Here is a quote concerning a Hopi dance: “Two clowns dressed as women came into the court. Their skirts were very short, not over eleven inches long. The men clowns would go up to them and try to pull the skirts down a little.”

The passage went on, describing how the clowns appeared to peek under the skirts and so on, without underscoring that all the participants were men.¬† Other witnesses did describe scenes that seemed to simulate intercourse, which were disturbing to the officials who thought these dances would promote immoral behavior. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Charles Burke eventually signed Circular 1665, banning these types of dances as well as “any disorderly or plainly excessive performance.”

My next few posts will discuss the BIA’s dance controversy in more depth.

Zuni Clowns, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Zuni Clowns, courtesy Smithsonian Institution

Kwakiutl Noo'nlemala or Fool Dancers, Franz Boaz, 1895, courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives

Kwakiutl Noo’nlemala or Fool Dancers, Franz Boaz, 1895, courtesy Smithsonian Institution, National Anthropological Archives

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A Run for Freedom

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

Escape of Keosoht

Patients were often brought to insane asylums against their wills, and then stayed in them against their wills. Many were heartbroken to think that relatives or spouses would commit them to treatment in such places, and some patients discovered to their horror that there would be little chance of returning to their homes. Patients at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians faced even more trauma, because a stay at this asylum meant leaving their own culture to come into an unfamiliar one. Language barriers made even common problems worse. Patients sometimes acted on their desire to return home and left the asylum. Most were caught and returned, because the staff at the asylum and lawmen knew patients would generally head for their home reservations. Still, escapes were embarrassing for the asylum’s superintendents and had to be duly reported to Washington, D.C.

In a few instances, patients who made an escape were allowed to return to their reservations without pursuit–perhaps giving hope to others considering escape.

Escape of Alfred One Feather



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Agency Report

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

Chiefs of the Yankton Sioux With Their Indian Agents, courtesy W. H. Over Museum, University of S. Dak.

It is fascinating to read period reports from agents of the federal government (see last post) for insight into conditions and attitudes of the time. In a 1904 report to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, R. J. Taylor, United States Indian Agent, discusses his (S. Dak.) agency. He begins: “They [Indians] make little or no effort to improve insanitary home conditions or to better provide themselves with the healthful necessaries of life. The vice of idleness and the social customs of visiting, drinking, feasting, and dancing are most potent factors in their deterioration.”

Though these words are negative, the agent’s following words show more compassion than might have been expected: “Some room should be provided to care for the sick, especially so that infectious cases could be isolated and others saved needless suffering. The Indians could be saved much expense and needless suffering . . . in many cases if needed medicines were supplied [by] agency physicians. When medicine is needed nothing but the best should be supplied; nothing else would be tolerated for a moment by the whites when they need a doctor or medicines.”

Rosebud Indian Agency, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Man in a Medical Supply Room at an Indian Boarding School, location unknown, circa 1900, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society



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Reports on Many Subjects

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

St. Vincent's Institution for the Insane, near St. Louis, Mo., circa 1910

Many people involved with “Indian Affairs” made reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, who then consolidated them into a report to the Secretary of the Interior. These people might be inspectors, superintendents of schools, reservation superintendents, Indian agents, and so on. Though my own research was largely confined to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, I found interesting material adjacent to the entries I actually needed to see. A 1907 report from the Indian Inspector for the Indian Territory provided this information:

The act of April 28, 1904 . . . provided that insane Indians should be sent to the Government asylum at Canton, S. Dak. In accordance with this act a contract was entered into with St. Vincent’s Institution for the Insane at St. Louis County, Mo., . . . providing for the care, maintenance, and support of insane persons from Indian Territory, not Indians, at the rate of $300 per annum, which includes all necessary medical attendance, nursing, treatment, medicines, clothing, washing, and board and care for the insane persons in a proper and humane manner.”

Per annum cost at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was $366 in 1907, and an extraordinary $394 in 1908. This may not seem like much today, but the overage was almost 20-25 percent higher than the government allowance for non-Indians at St. Vincent’s. In 1910, the average annual cost for the institutionalized insane throughout the country was $175–which makes the figures from Canton seem especially high. Dr. Hummer, Canton Asylum’s superintendent, knew his figures were high and struggled constantly to get them down.

Three Shoshone Women and A. Fred Caldwell, Superintendent of the Fort Hall Agency, courtesy Idaho State Historical Society

Indian Agent Heinlein Issues Blankets, Tents, and Clothing to the Paiutes in Exchange for their Land, courtesy Benton County Museum, Oregon


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Agriculture at the Asylum

Sunday, November 24th, 2013

Herd Pasturing on Wild Hay, 1910, courtesy Minnesota Historical Society

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians did not depend on its gardens and livestock for survival, but the dairy products, fresh meat, and fresh produce they produced made meals more bountiful and nourishing. Dr. Harry Hummer depended upon them to keep his costs down, and failures were disappointing to both his self-esteem and his goal of running a tight (economic) ship. Hummer was a micromanager, though, and his interference probably added to whatever problems the site had due to weather and soil conditions.

Dr. Hummer’s unreasonableness was well-known, and a farmer on staff complained once that the doctor expected him to get a spring garden in (sow seed) while the field for it was under a foot of water. A few years later, the asylum lost its potato and corn crops due to drought and excessive heat, an unpreventable loss that has regrettably always been part of the farmer’s lot. Despite these setbacks, Hummer embraced farming and raising livestock wholeheartedly. Many of his letters to various commissioners of Indian Affairs requested more buildings and equipment to expand these operations, and he was generally praised for his efforts in these areas. Either Hummer concentrated on farming because it was more rewarding than trying to cure his patients, or because he was so concerned about economy that he was willing to neglect his patients to spend time on these non-patient concerns.

Wheat Field, Kearney Nebraska, 1908, courtesy Library of Congress

Effects of Drought on Corn near Russelville, Arkansas, 1936, by Dorothea Lange, courtesy Library of Congress


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Another Patient’s Fate

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

Admission Notes Showing Insane and Epileptics Co-Mingled

Susan Wishecoby was sent to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians probably because of her epilepsy. She apparently did not know exactly what was wrong with her, and erroneously thought she was going to a hospital. She wrote many letters to the commissioners of Indian Affairs in office during her confinement, but they always referred her requests for discharge to Dr. Harry Hummer.

Wishecoby obviously got better, and worked with the attendants keeping the wards clean. After Commissioner Burke forwarded a letter of Wishecoby’s to Hummer, he replied: “She suffered from epileptic seizures, upon admission, but has not had one, so far as we have observed, for more than three years.” Hummer went on to say that Wishecoby had had delusions which were also in abeyance, and that her “irascible nature” was probably permanent. Hummer added that “her actions here are all that could be desired.”

After making such a case for her recovery, Hummer hastened to add: “…that she is endeavoring to convince us that she should be returned, and, when the restraints of this institution are removed, she may give way.” Then he got to the heart of the matter–she was of childbearing age. “If we are concerned only in treating this individual, we should probably discharge her. If we are concerned also in treating the future generations and preventing the increase of the number of cases of mental disease, we should pause and give this matter deep consideration.”

Records are incomplete, but the letters that remain show that Hummer wrote these words to the commissioner in July, 1925, and that Susan Wishecoby was returned home on September 14, 1925. The intervention of her brother and the reservation superintendent probably came into play, since references are made to them in additional letters around that same time.

An Epileptic Asylum in Abilene, Texas

One Treatment for Epilepsy


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Released for Convenience

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

Fort Totten Agency, Dakota Territory, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Dr. Harry Hummer did not release patients from the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians very often. Though he was willingly to release a few people to their families over the years, Hummer often refused to do so on the grounds that someone who was doing well at the asylum might relapse. However, when he found one or two of his patients extremely inconvenient, he had no problem reversing his usual philosophy. Jerome Court was such a case.

Court was a violent patient who probably had a problem with alcohol and went on drunken sprees that landed him in jail. When he was taken to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians from the Fort Totten, North Dakota reservation, Court quickly engineered an escape. He was captured and returned to the asylum and escaped once more with the help of an employee who had fallen in love with him. Court was troublesome and dangerous, and Hummer decided he wasn’t insane. “After having held Jerome C. Court since July 12, 1923 to date, and after many mental examinations, I am forced to conclude that he is either “not insane” or that he had practically recovered from any psychotic symptoms by the time he reached here,” Hummer wrote to the Ft. Totten superintendent.

Hummer’s diagnosis is suspect because he had a history of not examining patients, and was faulted for it on many occasions. However, after bickering back and forth with the Fort Totten superintendent and the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hummer won the day and released Court.

Indian Girls at the Grey Nuns' School at Fort Totten, courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota

Fort Totten, North Dakota


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Who Stayed at Canton Asylum?

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

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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Other Aspects of the Asylum

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Music Was Popular with Patients

Though Dr. Harry Hummer failed in many important areas when it came to providing care to his patients, he did try to provide occupations for the patients who wanted to be active. Some letters from patients to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs speak of being grateful for chores because being busy helped pass the time. Some also make reference to trips to town in the asylum automobile, going to the movies, and other pleasurable experiences.

In an inspector’s report from 1916, the asylum obviously had outdoor amusements. Other visitors often spoke of seeing patients strolling on the lawns or sitting in chairs when the weather was pleasant. However, the inspector also noted: “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, 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.”

One of the primary pictures of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians shows some swings in the foreground.

Trolley to an Asylum

Patients Putting on a Play, Long Island State Hospital


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Long Distance Oversight

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

William A. Jones was Commissioner of Indian Affairs When the Canton Asylum Opened

Few people ever wanted to enter an insane asylum, no matter how well run or up-to-date it was. And, like all institutions run by fallible human beings, asylums were not immune to mistakes and misjudgments on the part of their staffs. One problem the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians faced that St. Elizabeths and McLean didn’t (see last few posts) came as direct consequence of its long-distance oversight.

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was not under a trustee or board of visitors system like the other two asylums, though it is certainly untrue that this establishment was never inspected or investigated. However, the asylum was managed for the most part from thousands of miles away. The asylum’s superintendent in Canton reported directly to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, and the seven commissioners who held the position during the time the asylum was open very seldom, if ever, actually visited the place.

Agents or inspectors from the Indian Office did come by fairly regularly, but none of these men were psychiatrists. They found it difficult to determine how well the patients were being treated  for mental health issues, and usually confined themselves to commenting on the state of the buildings and how efficiently the superintendent ran his farming operation. Medical staff from the Indian Office eventually began visiting much more often as the asylum grew in size and came to the notice of the commissioner through complaints. Dr. Emil Krulish became a frequent visitor and made numerous criticisms that honed in on treatment and the way the superintendent, Dr. Harry Hummer, managed his personnel and patients. However, his voice was ignored and Hummer continued to thrive in his position.

House of Indian Agent Will Hayes, circa 1920-1940, courtesy Library of Congress

Home of Indian Agent William Shelton, circa 1910, courtesy Denver Public Library


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