Hiawatha Insane Asylum: A Haunting Legacy
By Elizabeth Stawicki
Full article: http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~sdlincol/hiawatha.htm
Condensed by Native Village

In 1898,Congress created the first and only Institution for insane Indians in the United States. The doors of Hiawatha Insane asylum in Canton, South Dakota, opened in January 1903.   During its 32 years, Hiawatha housed more than 350 Indians from tribes throughout North America. Many men, women, and children were placed there not because of mental illness, but because they fought with a white man or an agency. These were "traditional spiritual people or teenagers who misbehaved or people the Indian Agent didn't like," said Harold Iron Shield, founder of the Native American Reburial Restoration Committee.


Asylum Staff

One Indian affairs commissioner called reports of the asylum "reminiscent of the terrible indictments Charles Dickens leveled against English poorhouses and schools." Many Hiawatha patients died, including some who were denied medical care.   While land was set aside for a cemetery, the Indian Office said grave markers were too expensive.

Today, at least 121 bodies lie in unmarked graves in the middle of a Canton golf course. What does remain of their lives is listed on a dark  stone on the burial ground's west side. That stone holds a dark plaque which lists their names and dates of death.
(List of Names)

The National Park Service recently added the cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places.

Clara Christopher worked at the asylum since its inception. In 1979 when she was 91, a graduate student recorded Christopher's memories of the asylum. Christopher worked at the Canton asylum for 25 years in a variety of jobs ranging from cook to head of supplies. She remembered new patients:

"The first patient in...what was that? what month was that? the first patient that arrived, I remember, was on the first of December in 1902. "

"Some would see that sign "asylum" and it hurt 'em; some were heartbroken. I always felt for em. I felt for them as I would anyone. I could never stand to see them someplace and hold my ears so I couldn't hear 'em. Sometimes you know out on the reservation they had something against an Indian, and he was vicious or something like that, and they'd scribe 'insane.'"

Much information about the Hiawatha asylum's operation, patients, and staff comes from Dr. Samuel Silk, Clinical Director at America's premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth's in Washington, DC. In 1929, Silk inspected the Canton asylum in 1929 and filed a report:

 "Three patients were found padlocked in rooms. One was sick in bed, supposed to be suffering from a brain tumor, being bedridden and helpless...a boy about 10 years of age was in a strait jacket lying in his bed...one patient who had been in the hospital six years was padlocked in a room and, according to the attendant, had been secluded in this room for nearly three years. "

During a subsequent investigation,  Dr. Silk concluded many of Hiawatha Asylum's Indians were locked up because they had clashed with white men, a school or an agency - not because they were mentally ill:

"Would not the United States, if it could be held liable at all, be liable in these cases for enormous damages? The records of the asylum itself show them to be perfectly sane. They are known to be perfectly sane, to the director of the asylum Dr. Hummer. But he assumed the position that these people were below normal - mentally deficient - and they should only be discharged after they were sterilized, and as he did not have any means of doing this, there was nothing left but to keep them there.

Canton staff restrained many asylum patients in metal wristlets, camisoles, and shackles with iron chains. Silk noted that one epileptic girl  miraculously escaped severe burns even though she was chained near a hot water pipe during her seizures.

32-year-old Frank Hart discovered his great-grandfather, Marcus, had been held at the Canton asylum. Marcus served on the Red Lake Tribal Council of the Minnesota Ojibwe. Hart says all that remains of his great-grandfather's life are a few government documents:

"His Indian name was (Missee-way-guh-noo) which means "like a war eagle flying all over the place in the sky." He was a leader, he was a warrior and he was a good man. He'd tell you just how it is right to your face and doesn't care how it's going to affect you but he wouldn't lie to you.

Federal records show Marcus was committed to the Canton asylum with symptoms of senile psychosis. He, like other Indians, were stripped of their Indian identities. Authorities spoke to him in a language he would've struggled to understand. Instead of living in Minnesota's open woods, Hart was locked in a ward where sealed windows held in the stench of un-emptied chamberpots filled with human waste.

Arne Lunder had lived in Canton all his life and was one of the asylum's last living witnesses.

Lunder: The women were all in the front laying around on the grass out in front there. One of the head nurses came out and said "Bring her back in." She was laying on a blanket so they took one on each corner ... and drug her up the steps. It really impressed me; I thought it was kinda cruel.

 Hiawatha asylum did not even meet the minimum requirements for a institution treating the mentally ill. Gerald Grob is a professor of history and medicine at Rutgers University. He is also a leading authority US mental health policy history:

"What you had here was an institution you could only define as deviant. It wasn't doing what a lot of other hospitals if you go through state's records, the person running it had no contact with psychiatry.

University of South Dakota history professor Herbert Hoover says Hiawatha's creation was most likely ignorant of Indian culture and not an organized plot to confine sane Indians.

Hoover: The great fault was not in investigating how native Americans dealt with insanity prior to the arrival of whites. So we took western European strategies of dealing with insanity. It really was a well intentioned desire to accomplish cultural imperialism without killing Indian people. And this was a part of it.

The Canton asylum was created when the United States' official Indian policy was assimilation. Leonard Bruguier, a Yankton Sioux and  director of the USD's Institute of American Indian studies, says whatever Haiwatha's intent, it was a convenient tool for reservation agents.

"So in order for the agent to feel more comfortable being surrounded by yes-people, it would be very easy for him to say "This person's insane," and have him shipped to Canton to be administered by a whole different set of rules. Basically you'd just be able to get rid of 'em.

Some tribal representatives are concerned that talking about the Canton asylum might create more conflict with the federal government. But  Bruguier has another theory: shame. Bruguier says the Canton asylum attacked a core Indian value that those who were considered different - mentally ill or otherwise - contributed to Indian society:

 "We took care of them, and then all of a sudden we have this insane asylum, and they say this Indian's insane and we're going to move him to Canton, and he's going to be with people like him. A lot of Indian people are ashamed they let this happen to their relatives. That they let someone come in and take 'em away, basically, and in many cases they were never heard from again.

Harold Iron Shield, a Yankton Lakota, holds ceremonies at the grave site each May to honor and remember those who lived and died at the asylum. Iron Shield believes the federal government used the Hiawatha asylum to jail Indians who wouldn't conform:


St. Elizabeth's Hospital

"These people were victims of the fed government as usual because of their involvement with spiritual ceremonies, because kids didn't really understand the kind of conformity they were to abide by. They didn't understand why they couldn't speak their tribal languages. They didn't understand why they had to go to church. They didn't understand why they had to change."

In 1933, Roosevelt's commissioner of Indian affair, John Collier, ordered Hiawatha Asylum closed and the patients moved to St. Elizabeth's in Washington DC.  Canton residents, however, waged a federal court battle to keep the asylum open -- the asylum was a major contributor to Canton's economy during the depths of America's depression.  Members of the nearby Rosebud Sioux also opposed Canton's closing. They didn't want their friends and relatives in the asylum sent thousands of miles east.

The fight generated national news coverage from New York to Montana.

Collier prevailed in court, and Hiawatha closed in December, 1933. Dr. Samuel Silk immediately sent 17 Indians home. Some had been confined as long as 16 years. Another 69, including Marcus Hart, required hospitalization and were sent to St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Most spent the rest of their lives institutionalized.

Ten years later, the federal government sold the property to the city of Canton for one dollar. The county attorney at the time was Craig Brown, said local officials didn't think it unusual l to build a golf course on the land, even if 121 bodies were buried there.

Brown: We didn't think a whole lot of it; it was the Indians who found out about the cemetery and they started their religious exercises out there and of course it became a topic of discussion before we did something about it.

Today, the graveyard of 121 Canton patients exists between the fourth and fifth fairways of Hiawatha Golf Course. Moving the graves isn't an option/ Doing so would be costly and some Indian elders say moving the graves would disrupt the spiritual journeys of those buried here.  In the past, Hiawatha golfers sometimes hit balls off the graves. But a new rule says that if a ball lands on a grave, players can take a free drop and play the shot outside the cemetery. Meanwhile, the course moved the fifth hole's teebox 20 yards further away from the graves.

   The names of those buried in the Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery:

1. Long Time Owl Woman
2. Juanita Castildo
3. Mary Fairchild
4. Lucy Reed
5. Minnie La Count
6. Sylvia Ridley
7. Edith Standing Bear
8. Chur Ah Tah E Kah
9. Ollie House
10. Asal Tcher
11. Alice Short
12. Enos Pah
13. Baby Ruth Enas Pah
14. Agnes Sloan
15. E We Jar
16. Kaygwaydahsegaik
17. Chee
18. Emma Gregory
19. Magwon
20. Kay Ge Gah Aush Eak
21. Kaz Zhe Ah Bow
22. Blue Sky
23. Louise McIntosh
24. Jane Burch
25. Dupue
26. Maggie Snow
27. Lupe Maria
28. Lizzie Vipont
29. Mary Peirre
30. Nancy Chewie
31. Ruth Chief on Top
32. Mary G. Buck
33. Cecile Comes at Night
34. Maud Magpie
35. Poke Ah Dab Ab
36. Sits in it
37. Josephine Wells
38. A.B. Blair
39. Josephine Pajihatakana
40. Baby Caldwell
41. Sallie Seabott
42. Selina Pilon
43. Mrs. Twoteeth
44. Kayso
45. Josephine De Couteau
46. Jessie Hallock
47. Marie Pancho
48. Ede Siroboz
49. Kiger
50. Mary Bah
51. Cynia Houle
52. Drag Toes
53. Charlie Brown
54. Jacob Hayes
55. Toby
56. Tracha
57. Hon Sah Sah Kah
58. Big Day
59. Fred Takesup
60. Peter Greenwood
61. Robert Brings Plenty
62. Nadesooda
63. Taistoto
64. James Chief Crow
65. Yells at Night
66. John Woodruff
67. George Beautiste
68. Baptiste Gingras
69. Lowe War
70. Silas Hawk
71. Red Cloud
72. Howling Wolf
73. Antone
74. Arch Wolf
75. Frank Starr
76. Joseph Taylor
77. Amos Brown
78. James Crow Lightening
79. John Martin
80. Red Crow
81. James Blackeye
82. Abraham Meachern
83. Aloysious Moore
84. Tom Floodwood
85. James Black Bull
86. Benito Juan
87. Seymour Wauketch
88. Anselmo Lucas
89. Chico Francisco
90. Roy Wolfe
91. Matt Smith
92. Two Teeth
93. Pugay Beel
94. Merbert Conley
95. Jack Root
96. Charlie Clafflin
97. John Hall
98. Amos Deer
99. Ne Bow O Sah
100.Thomas Chasing Bear
101.Dan Ach Onginiwa
102.Joseph Bigname
103.Falkkas
104.Steve Simons
105. James Two Crows
106. F.C. Eagle
107. Andrew Dancer
108. Apolorio Moranda
109. Harry Miller
110. Herbert Iron
111. Fred Collins
112. John Coal on Fire
113. Joseph D. Marshall
114. Willie George
115. James Hathorn
116. Ira Girstean
117. Edward Hedges
118. Omudis
119. Guy Crow Neck
120. John Big
121. A. Kennedy

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