Native American Gulag: The Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery

Laura Waterman Wittstock

The perverse history of governmental-Lakota/Dakota relations took a more sinister turn when the Hiawatha Insane Asylum was built 10 years after Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890. It operated for over 30 years before it was torn down. The bodies of those Indian men and women who died there are buried under what is now a golf course in Canton, South Dakota.

After the military wars against Indian people, the battle for their hearts and minds moved relentlessly forward. Even in death, the 121 buried on the former grounds are mocked as golf balls whiz over their heads and the former president of the Canton Area Historical Society Don Pottranz refers to their bizarre grave as, “It’s something that people are aware of but it’s ancient history now.”

With no knowledge whatsoever of native cultures, languages, customs, and spiritual life, South Dakota Senator R.F. Pettigrew introduced Congressional legislation in 1899 to create the nation’s first native insane asylum. Congress appropriated $45,000.

In 1900 construction began after U.S. Representative Oscar Gifford (former Canton mayor) arranged for the purchase of 100 acres of land two miles east of Canton.

In 1902 the first patient was received and in 1908 Gifford was forced out when a physician charged that the superintendent refused to allow him to remove gallstones from a patient, who later died. Gifford was replaced by Harry Hummel, a psychiatrist. That same year, Hummel was charged by thirteen employees with mistreating patients.

In 1926 the matrons who had staffed the asylum were replaced by professional nurses. In 1929 Hummel was finally ordered to be removed. U.S Representative Louis Cramton intervened and Hummel stayed. In 1933, patients were transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and in April 1934, Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier closed the asylum.

In the interim, Canton and South Dakota congressional delegates fought to keep it open. Hummel had been charged with malfeasance and misfeasance in 1933. He was subsequently dismissed.

Averaging four deaths a month over the thirty some years of its existence, the asylum did not seem able to maintain the patients’ physical health very well. Dr. Hummel, famed for his hair-trigger temper, ruled the institution for 25 years.

Then, 100 years after Wounded Knee, freelance investigative reporter Harold Ironshield (Yankton:1945-2008) researched the former asylum and the inmates whose known names are listed as buried at the site. Ironshield asked Indian publications to list the names in the hopes that living family members would recognize them and come forward. He wanted to know what the families might want to do about the graves and whether the remains should be moved. He also wanted more information on the history of the asylum, particularly the explanations of what was supposed to constitute insanity and why the individuals were selected for incarceration. From the reports of those who remember the asylum, according to Ironshield, the reasons had to do with not following government rules, and discipline in school. He suggested that the asylum was more gulag than governmental response to the mental health of Indians.

The names of those buried in the Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery are:

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

Native people from all over the country were placed in the asylum. The records show that the physical conditions were horrific. Besides being shackled to beds and pipes, the patients were made to wallow in their own body wastes and clean sheets were not regularly issued. In Dr. Hummel’s opinion, insanity was increasing among natives, and he was perhaps right in the sense that the well documented starvation on reservations during that historical period was causing pain and suffering, and Indians torn from their cultures were being pushed down narrower and narrower corridors of forced “civilization” and “assimilation.”

The full truth about this chamber of horrors may never be fully known, but it was clearly a case of medicine and politics making a most poisonous mix.

Laura Waterman Wittstock’s book with Dick Bancroft’s photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement, was released in May, 2013.

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