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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.