Tag Archives: commissioner of Indian affairs

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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One Way to Canton

Downtown Albuquerque, circa 1912, courtesy National Archives

Downtown Albuquerque, circa 1912, courtesy National Archives

Admitting a patient to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was usually an easy–and fast–procedure. Since patients were not generally committed through legal process, a series of letters was usually sufficient to justify cause, ask for admittance, and give permission for it. Patients’ rights were trampled of course, but records show that many of those who urged a patient’s commitment felt that they were doing the right thing.

Early Class of Young Boys, Albuquerque Indian School, circa 1895, courtesy National Archives

Early Class of Young Boys, Albuquerque Indian School, circa 1895, courtesy National Archives

Lillian Burns, a young Laguna woman at Albuquerque Pueblo Day School, evidently became violent and uncontrollable on June 19, 1912. She was taken to the Laguna sanatorium, but the staff could not supervise her constantly and had to call in various teachers, police, and farmers for help. J. B. Burke, Clerk in Charge at the Pueblo Day School, asked a local doctor for help; Dr. Dillon contacted the Indian Office, and after no response, suggested taking Burns to the State Insane Asylum in Las Vegas.

New Mexico Insane Asylum in Las Vegas, 1904

New Mexico Insane Asylum in Las Vegas, 1904

In his telegram concerning this commitment, Dr. Dillon asked: “Can we bring her on number ten to-morrow. Impossible and inhumane to keep her here longer, otherwise must turnĀ  her over to sheriff.”

Burke wired Dr. Dillon (and evidently the Indian Office as well) to arrange for Burns to be sent to the Canton Asylum, instead. The Indian Office responded with a telegram of its own authorizing $100 to cover transportation and expenses, and Burke acted on that as permission to send Burns to the Canton Asylum.

Lillian Burns, who was taken ill on June 19, was admitted to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians on June 25, less than a week later. Fortunately, she was a patient who, unlike most, did not spend a lot of time there. She was released in April, 1913.

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A Cost Analysis

Lincoln County Courthouse, circa 1902, located in Canton

Lincoln County Courthouse, circa 1902, located in Canton

Interested parties (mainly in South Dakota) wanted an asylum established exclusively for insane Indians, and tried to make a case for it. They met with a complete lack of support from the superintendent (William W. Godding) of the only other federal institution for the insane, St. Elizabeths. Godding pointed out that the costs to maintain the few insane Indians at St. Elizabeths was less than $3,000 a year, while the proposed asylum in South Dakota would cost $150,000 and need an annual expenditure of at least $25,000 to run it. (See last post.)

However, the Indian Office supported the idea of an asylum, and began to gather figures to show how badly it was needed. St. Elizabeths reported that it had seven Indians in care in 1897 (two had been there close to ten years) for a total cost of $9,506.50 for their entire time as patients. The acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs had no figures as to how many insane Indians might actually need a new asylum’s services, but thought that “an asylum that would accommodate fifty patients would be ample.”

Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia, known commonly as St. Elizabeths

Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia, known commonly as St. Elizabeths

When the Commissioner, William Jones, later canvassed the various reservations to ascertain the number of insane Indians on them, most had none. Of the reservation agents who responded, only 58 Indians were found to be insane, with 7 of that number already in asylums. Agents mentioned other Indians as being “idiotic,” but tellingly, not needing help. One agent said that “a few” on his reservation were slightly insane but not requiring restraint in an asylum. (His estimate is not included in the preceding figure.) Of the 51 potential patients actually on reservations, the agents felt only 34 might need asylum care.

Even if all 58 patients had been taken to St. Elizabeths at a cost of $91/quarter ($364 annually), the total annual cost would have been only slightly over $21,000 a year. That was still under the figure Dr. Godding suggested would be needed to run an asylum in South Dakota each year. Clearly, anyone who did the math could see that even with the added transportation costs to St. Elizabeths, a new asylum really wasn’t worth the money for the few patients that might make use of it. Even paying extra at local state asylums (to offset transporting patients to Washington, DC where St. Elizabeths was located) would have been cheaper.

Yet, the asylum was built, staffed, and infrastructure put in place to support it. A later inspector called the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians a “magnificent political gesture” that had done little good for the recipients it had promised to help.

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Other Ills at the Asylum

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Though there is no mention of any smallpox epidemics at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, the threat of this terrible disease was very real. Smallpox had devastated Native American communities once Europeans arrived, since native peoples had no immunity to a disease they had never encountered. Mortality estimates range from 50% for the Cherokee, Catawba, and Huron, and as high as 90% for the Mandan after first contact.

Native Americans did not immediately connect smallpox to the Europeans who brought it. Plains tribes thought the disease was the Bad Spirit appearing, while the Creeks and Cherokees thought it came to them because they had violated tribal laws. Missionaries and Jesuits were later blamed for smallpox because of their religious paraphernalia and concern about dying, and they may well have carried infection to the various peoples they visited in the course of their work.

By the early 1900s, Native Americans were well aware that Europeans had brought this tremendous disaster with them. In 1914, Dr. Harry Hummer vaccinated 48 patients and five employees against smallpox. (Another five employees had previously contracted smallpox, and 13 refused the vaccination.) Hummer askedĀ  the Commissioner of Indian Affairs what he should do about the employees who had refused the vaccine, and he had a right to be concerned. Considering the frail health that many of his patients endured, smallpox would have been an overwhelming illness for them to fight.

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

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A Full Time Job

Chiefs of the Yankton Sioux With Their Indian Agents, courtesy S. J. Morrow Collection, the W. H. Over Museum, University of South Dakota

Chiefs of the Yankton Sioux With Their Indian Agents, courtesy S. J. Morrow Collection, the W. H. Over Museum, University of South Dakota

Indian inspectors had their hands full trying to ensure that laws and policies were properly carried out within all the reservations (see last post).

But, it was the Indian agent who actually made things tick at the local level. Almost all reservations had an agent, who wielded enormous power over the lives of the Native Americans who were living on them as wards of the U.S. government.

Continue reading

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Where Do You Go?

Living Quarters in an Insane Asylum

Living Quarters in an Insane Asylum

Nearly every patient in an insane asylum wanted out. Asylum superintendents often put up roadblocks to this when they didn’t feel a patient was well enough to go home; there are many accounts of clashes between the asylum’s medical staff advising against removal, and patients’ families who thought they looked or seemed well enough to come home. Continue reading

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More Odd Decisions

Law West of the Pecos Judged Horse Thiefs Harshly, photo taken of Langtry, Texas in 1900, courtesy National Archives

Law West of the Pecos Judged Horse Thieves Harshly, photo taken of Langtry, Texas in 1900, courtesy National Archives

After being accused of horse theft, Peter Thompson Good Boy met an Insanity Commission in South Dakota and was adjudged insane. Oddly, he was sent to the government hospital in Washington, DC instead of the much closer Canton Asylum in SD. Continue reading

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Importance of Asylum Gardens

Vermont Asylum for the Insane, circa 1880 to 1890

Vermont Asylum for the Insane, circa 1880 to 1890

Asylum gardens provided occupational therapy of a sort for patients who were physically able to work in them. Some patients truly enjoyed working in a small flower garden perhaps, or even an hour or two in a vegetable garden.

However, because some superintendents reported having to “force” patients to work outside, this so-called therapy obviously did not appeal to everyone. 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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A Run for Freedom

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. Continue reading

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