Tag Archives: Meriam Report

Asylum Comparisons

St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia

St. Elizabeths Hospital for the Insane of the Army, Navy, and District of Columbia

St. Elizabeths and the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians were investigated a number of times during the early twentieth century. Both were federal insane asylums, but they were also quite different. St. Elizabeths was very much a medical facility, while the Canton Asylum was run along Indian boarding school lines. In 1927:

— St. Elizabeths had an amusement hall (Hitchcock Hall) for patients; Canton Asylum did not.

— St. Elizabeths had specialized buildings like cottages for tubercular patients and quarantine buildings; Canton Asylum did not.

St. Elizabeths had a 10,000 volume library and subscribed to 35 periodicals; in 1925 the Congressional Library began to send its surplus magazines to the asylum (about 1,000 a month); Canton Asylum received subscriptions to about half a dozen magazines.

St. Elizabeths had a furlough program which allowed patients to go home on trial visits; a social worker followed up on patients during these short visits; Canton Asylum actively discouraged furloughs for any reason. St. Elizabeths created an out-patient department for veterans who had been discharged from the military shortly after commitment. This department helped some patients find employment and tried to help them find a home so that they would not be overwhelmed when they were released. Canton Asylum did not help its patients this way.

A typical menu for a Tuesday midday meal at St. Elizabeths showed: bean soup, beef pot roast, gravy, browned potatoes, cucumbers, bread, oleo, and tapioca cream pudding. A menu for Canton Asylum (from the 1928 Meriam Report) showed: a stew of meat and carrots, with more fat and bones than anything else, thin apple sauce, bread, and coffee.

St. Elizabeths was significantly larger than the Canton Asylum, which gave it justification for some of its specialized facilities. However, its placement in Washington, DC and its patient population (veterans and citizens of the District of Columbia) also mattered. The American Red Cross, veterans’ groups, and the Knights of Columbus, as well as other civic organizations had easy access for volunteer work and aid of various kinds; the Canton Asylum had to depend on the kindness of small-town organizations like volunteer ministers and the Canton Band to help its patients.

However, both organizations had areas of weakness that investigations brought to light.

Dining Room at McLean Asylum for the Insane

Dining Room at McLean Asylum for the Insane

Bear Cubs at St. Elizabeths' Zoological Gardens

Bear Cubs at St. Elizabeths’ Zoological Gardens

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How Does the Bureau of Indian Affairs Run?

John Collier

John Collier’s article about Amerindians (see last post) laid the blame for much of the Indians’ misery on the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Indians were now full citizens of the United States, Collier wrote, but unlike all other citizens, were completely under the control of Congress through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The BIA controlled Indian property valued at $1,650,000,000, Indian income, and even their persons to a great extent.

The BIA could force Indian children to go to schools hundreds of miles away from home, “enforce an unpublished penal code” that allowed them to arrest Indians at will, censor Indians’ religious observances, and nullify an Indian’s last will and testament unless it had been previously approved by the BIA.

Worst of all, said Collier, the BIA “makes accounting to no agency juristic, legislative, and administrative.” It acted as a government unto itself and had a monopoly of control on reservations. He did note that the agency was finally having to account for itself through a survey being conducted at the time of his writing. This accounting resulted in the Meriam Report, discussed in posts on May 12-19.

Native American Farmer on Flathead Reservation , circa 1920, courtesy BIA

Sioux Men in Traditional Dress, 1909, courtesy Library of Congress

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Oblivious at the Indian Bureau

The Meriam Report (see last two posts) faced a large bureaucracy and insular personnel. An Interior department report reprinted in 1926 (the same year the Meriam Commission began its survey) stated: “The two officials most directly charged by law with the administration of Indian Affairs, the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, are sincere friends of the Indians and can be depended upon to guard and promote most faithfully every interest of our Government wards.”

Edgar B. Meritt, courtesy Library of Congress

The report* went on to say that there was considerable propaganda going on against the Indian Bureau, which was instigated by selfish interests. The writer, assistant commissioner, Edgar Meritt, attributed the selfish interests to land grafters. He added, “They are using the services of white agitators and some shrewd mixed-blood Indians who are willing to sacrifice the less fortunate of their own race for personal gain.”

*The American Indian and Government Indian Administration, Bulletin 12

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The Problem With Indian Boarding Schools

Learning Carpentry at Haskell Indian Junior College (1900-1924) courtesy Library of Congress

The Meriam survey took about a year to complete, and team members visited numerous Indian boarding schools. In general, they found schools overcrowded, the food poor, and child labor rampant. The team also observed that, “In a number of schools the girls sleep at night like prisoners with the windows nailed down and the door to the fire escape locked so that by no chance may boys enter or girls leave the building.”

Spokane Schoolgirls, Fort Spokane, courtesy Library of Congress

The Meriam Report concluded that government boarding schools acted against the development of wholesome family life. The original intent of the boarding school system was to educate the children and then absorb them into the white population. The absorption plan failed, but  family ties were often broken. “Many children today have not seen their parents or brothers and sisters in years,” said the report.

Interestingly, a report written by assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs, Edgar B. Meritt, in 1926 stated: The Indian Bureau is conducting one of the most efficient school systems among the Indians to be found anywhere in the United States or the civilized world.”

Indian Boys Doing Laundry, Carlisle School, 1901, courtesy Library of Congress

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The Problem of Indian Administration

Health Care to Native Americans and Meriam Commission, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Health Care to Native Americans and Meriam Commission, courtesy National Institutes of Health

The Meriam Report (see last post) summed up its findings in the first chapter. The survey team found that the causes of then-current Indian conditions were so interrelated that they couldn’t be teased out from their effects. Instead, cause and effect formed a vicious circle of poverty and lack of adjustment. The team decided it was best to simply report on the conditions it found. The following are abbreviated examples:

1. Health. The health of the Indians as compared with that of the general population is bad.

2. Living Conditions. The prevailing living conditions among the great majority of the Indians are conducive to the development and spread of disease. With comparatively few exceptions the diet of the Indians is bad. It is generally insufficient in quantity, lacking in variety, and poorly prepared.

— The housing conditions are likewise conducive to bad health.

3. Economic Conditions. The income of the typical Indian family is low and the earned income extremely low.

4. The Causes of Poverty. The economic basis of the primitive culture of the Indians has been largely destroyed by the encroachment of white civilization.

The Meriam Report explained its findings in great detail, to the embarrassment of federal officials.

Teepee, Mescalero Reservation, 1936, courtesy Library of Congress

Teepee, Mescalero Reservation, 1936, courtesy Library of Congress

Typical Indian Home (Flathead Reservation, 1909), courtesy Library of Congress

Typical Indian Home (Flathead Reservation, 1909), courtesy Library of Congress

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The Meriam Report

Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, tried to get a feel for conditions within the Indian population under his control. Muckrakers at the time were divulging a number of abuses, and after several unsatisfactory attempts to get to the bottom of them, Work contacted the Institute for Government Research.

Hubert Work

Hubert Work

In 1926, the Institute gathered a team of experts headed by Lewis Meriam, to survey reservations, schools, and other Indian Bureau facilities. Other team members were: Ray Brown, Henry Cloud, Edward Dale, Emma Duke, Herbert Edwards, Fayette McKenzie, Mary Mark, W. Carson Ryan, Jr., and William Spillman.

The team had little of the partisanship or bias that typical investigators took to the field, and on February 21, 1928, they presented Work  with a report called “The Problem of Indian Administration” that didn’t mince words. My next two posts will detail some of their findings.

 

Sample of Meriam Report

Sample of Meriam Report

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