The Hiawatha Asylum for ‘Insane’ Indians

Ruth Hopkins

In 1898, just eight years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, the U.S. Congress passed a bill that created a new federal facility: The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Located in Canton, South Dakota, the Asylum would be the only federal mental institution in the United States created solely for the purpose of housing and treating American Indians who were purportedly mentally ill.

The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians stands out as a particularly ugly chapter in the history of offenses committed against American Indians. It’s been largely hidden from the public, and it’s seldom acknowledged, even in native circles. Still, records and eyewitness accounts of its existence persist.

The asylum began receiving patients in 1903. Mr. Oscar S. Gifford, a U.S. Representative and a former mayor of Canton, became the first administrator of the asylum. He was not a licensed physician or psychiatrist.  Amid rumors of patient mistreatment, Gifford was replaced by psychiatrist Harry Hummer in 1908. Hummer stayed on for twenty five years, although he was ultimately dismissed for malfeasance.

Over the years, Native people from various Tribes all across the U.S. were sent to the asylum. Conditions there were shocking. The facility operated without power or indoor plumbing. It was exceedingly understaffed. One or two attendants looked after an entire ward of patients. Staff lacked medical training, supervision, and were utterly ignorant of native languages and customs. Physical abuse as a means of controlling patients was tolerated.  Until 1926, matrons who worked at the asylum were not professionally trained nurses. Patients were often shackled to beds, pipes, or radiators and were forced to lie in their own filth for extended periods.

Patients at the asylum were exploited financially too. Besides the fact that very little federally allotted money was spent to feed, clothe, care for, and treat patients, Hummer showcased native patients in a special area of the hospital for the amusement of paying tourists who were invited there from all over the country.

After the historic Meriam Report documented disturbing conditions at the asylum, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs called Dr. Samuel Silk, from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C., to investigate the institution further. What Dr. Silk uncovered was alarming. To say that conditions at the asylum were inhumane is an understatement. Patients lived in squalor. Food was not fit for human consumption. Windows were sealed shut, and because chamber pots were left full of human waste, the air inside the asylum was noxious. He found a woman lying in mounds of her own maggot-infested feces. Other patients had been locked away in isolation for years at a time. He discovered a young boy locked up in a straightjacket, barely clothed and alone. Yes, the asylum admitted native children, often without parental consent. There were babies born there as well, although most did not survive.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking finding of that investigation, as well as the others that followed, was that the majority of patients admitted to the asylum did not suffer from mental illness. Although The Commissioner of Indian Affairs authorized all admissions to the asylum, those admissions were based on referrals from Indian Agents who supervised reservations. Some patients suffered from alcoholism, but most patients were sent to the asylum because they were considered ‘problem Indians’ who opposed government interests or refused to give up cultural beliefs and practices.  Investigations of the asylum made national news. In 1933, The New York Times ran a story entitled: "Sane Indians Held in Dakota Asylum: Patients Kept Shackled."

As it turned out, the asylum was just another means of instilling fear in natives, who were threatened with the prospect of being shipped off to the house of horrors that was the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians if they refused to obey or assimilate.

My great grandfather Tom wouldn’t do either one. He was a proud, stubborn, native man who was known for singing traditional Dakota songs. He was also fond of moccasin games. Tom was repeatedly warned to put away his drum, but he wouldn’t relent. He was a fighter. One night he was beaten within an inch of his life for his disobedience. He was then sent to Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. My great grandfather was never seen or heard from again. His Death Certificate makes note of head trauma.

Records show that at least 350 patients were detained at the asylum. On average, there were four patient deaths each and every month during its thirty year operation. To this day, there is no record of why any of the native patients who were incarcerated at the asylum were placed there, or what the causes of death were for anyone who perished there.  At least 121 patients died while imprisoned at the asylum, some without names.  In 1934, then Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier finally closed the asylum’s doors.

Today, Tom lies in repose with infants, children and other native men and women who suffered and died within the walls of the asylum. There were no stone markers in the asylum cemetery—Indian Affairs considered them an unwarranted expense. In 1998, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery now sits beneath the fourth and fifth hole of a golf course in Canton.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, a pro-bono tribal attorney, a science professor, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network. She can be reached at cankudutawin@hotmail.com

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cathy53's picture
Its like everything else that was done to Native Americans, cruel, unjust treatment. But if you try to get compensation, people think were liars and want something from the GOVERMENT. As far as I'm concerned they can keep there compensation I'll never forget my Boarding School Experiances, when i tell of them today my own people thing there is things that are truth.
duwaynesmith's picture
Yes, you see little published on this shameful story. I found very little information on this when I briefly researched it several years ago after reading a biography of John Collier. As I remember, Collier had a difficult time removing the director, closing the asylum down and transferring the patients to St Elizabeth's psychiatric facility in Washington, D.C.. I hope this was an improvement, but maybe not. To Collier's credit, this was one of the first things he did as Commissioner and even he found political opposition. You should write a book on this to honor your great grandfather. It hasn't been done to my knowledge. Good story.
shirleyzawada's picture
Horrifying and atrocious!!!!
wendysusanagecoutay's picture
This is the first time I have heard of this place and it is heartbreaking. My heart is for the young boy who had to endure such a place in his young life. My heart is always for the children...our future. Though my heart is filled with sadness...I am hopeful about the future and that there will never, again, be a time when Aboriginal people will suffer so much as we did in the past 150 years. I trust that we will never allow it. I look forward, always, to all of the goodness and blessings that we deserve. Change is a difficult process but that is where our best chance at a better future lies. It is my sincerest prayer that we continue to find the strength, courage and wisdom that we need to bring all Aboriginal people out of the dark ages where we were placed and back into the light where we once lived. Respectfully, Wendy A.
Anonymous's picture
HIAWATHA INDIAN INSANE ASYLUM SACRED BURIAL GROUNDS HEALING AND PRAYER CEREMONY Sunday, May 19, 2013 at 12 noon The annual ceremony will be held in the town of Canton at the Hiawatha Country Club Golf Course between the 4th and 5th holes, located 18 miles southeast of Sioux Falls, off of Highway 18 East. Harold Iron Shield, founding member of Native American Reburial Restoration Committee began this annual event in 1988 and kept it alive until his death in 2008. It has now been revived to honor and give our prayers of peace and healing to those buried there. Everyone is welcome to attend. =================================== In 1902, the U.S. Government opened the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for American Indians only. The purpose was to care for those members of tribes all over the U.S. who were allegedly insane. The asylum was operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Indians who made up the population of the asylum were those Indians seen by the Government as "trouble makers"--spiritual leaders, medicine men, vision quest seekers, those who resisted reservation boundaries and boarding school students who did not conform to school policies. Today the 121 bodies of the Hiawatha patients who died in the so called hospital and could not be returned to their families lie in state in what is now the Hiawatha Country Club golf course. Just off the fourth fairway one will find a split rail fence surrounding the small cemetery, a monument sits in its middle bearing the names of those interred there. -A ceremony calling out the names of those known buried there with a prayer ribbon for each name will be tied to the rail fence in their honor with a final prayer for peace and healing will be offered. -Bring cedar, sweet grass, and sage for smudging, and tobacco for offering; a special token rock to lay it at the plaque of names as remembrance. -Bring traditional foods for offerings to “the pitiful ones.” And looking for drummers who can sing sacred songs Honor Harold Iron Shield's work, blessed be his memory; Please help get the word out. Send this flyer to your tribal and community leaders, friends and relatives, even if you know they would be unable to come. It is time to acknowledge the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum for what took place there and the only way to do that is to educate and tell everyone we know. For more information contact: Lavanah Judah - lavanah.judah@gmail.com 605-260-1853 Michelle Anderson - onedla@sio.midco.net
zeegirl-09's picture
I am looking for a little more information on this place, and do you know if they ever made a movie of this or were they trying? My Great Grandfather was in there and i have his death certificate showing he died there.