David Rooks
At the close of the ceremony, a 21-arrow salute was given by an archery team of students from Nebraska Indian Community College.

A 21-Arrow Salute: ‘Come See the Crazy Indians’

David Rooks

The Hiawatha Golf Club just east of Canton, South Dakota has an anomaly. Between the fourth and fifth fairways lies a cemetery. Enclosed by a weathered split-rail fence, the cemetery, roughly square at about 120 feet a side, is said to contain the remains of 121 inmates from the long since defunct Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum. A ground radar survey by a team from the Choctaw Nation last year puts the figure closer to 130.

Sunday morning, June 5, this hallowed ground was fairly warm by 10 a.m. Standing by the lone granite marker, whose bronze plaque carries the names of 120 of those buried somewhere close beneath it, I heard a soft rustle behind me. Ten feet west of the split rails stood a young man with a golf club who appeared to be waiting, more or less patiently. Lying in front of him was a golf ball.

I exited the cemetery on the west side and stopped by a tree. After a few practice swings, the young man approached his ball and then struck it. It skittered beneath the rail, through the cemetery, and out the east end, headed for the fourth green. I thought of Arlington National Cemetery. Would they allow this young man to “play through” there? I then thought of the mass burial site at Wounded Knee, and how nice it would be if it were surrounded by Hiawatha’s manicured lawns and lush and well-pruned trees. But not if it came with golfers.

The fifth annual Honoring and Remembering Ceremony for Native Americans buried at the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum Cemetery was held two hours later, just after noon. Lavanah Smith-Judah, chief organizer of the event, said members of 53 tribes are buried in the cemetery, and all “53 tribes from across 17 states” were invited.

A traditional prayer by Ihanktowan tribal elder, Joe Shields, started things off, followed by a procession to the granite stone and plaque where an honor guard of Ihanktowan veterans presented national and tribal colors. Flags from five other tribes were also presented by their members present. Traditional drum and songs were sung by the Yankton Sioux Singers.

I thought of Arlington National Cemetery. Would they allow this young man to “play through” there? (David Rooks)

The 80 or so attending were invited to participate in a “Who will sing my name?” prayer ribbon ceremony. As each ancestor’s name was called out, a single yellow, black, white or red ribbon, representing an ancestor buried there, was tied on a fence rail. At the close of the ceremony, a 21-arrow salute was given by an archery team of students from Nebraska Indian Community College.

Before the salute, Dr. Erich Longie, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Spirit Lake Dakota Sioux Tribe in Spirit Lake, North Dakota spoke. Longie reminded everyone that it is the nature of tribal peoples to keep their ancestors with them always; in their hearts, their minds, and their prayers. Longie also pledged to go back to Spirit Lake and see if he could get his tribe to help fund the purchase and construction of a new fence around the cemetery.

Given the golfer earlier that morning, Longie’s pledge seemed timely.

There are two Hiawathas in history: the fictional character in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem of 1855, and the real, flesh and blood, historical Iroquois chief. No one at the golf club could say which Hiawatha the golf course, or the insane asylum, were named after. That’s quite in keeping with the entire history of the ill-starred asylum.

A history entry from the South Dakota government website states “The “Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians” was established by the U.S. Congress in 1899, officially opened in 1903, and closed in 1934 after federal investigations found, not just outdated, but inhumane treatment. The asylum was only the second federal insane asylum and the first to be dedicated to an ethnic group. Around 374 Native Americans from 50 tribes across the country were brought here.


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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
And the absolute disregard and uncaring behavior and attitude continues to People who had more than a lifetime of suffering in silence. A golf course next to their final resting place, be it not by the deceased or their families choosing. This harkens back to the days when the newspaper invited the public to come see the crazy Indians. I mean, really, "Lets go play golf where those insane Indians are buried." Absolutely reprehensible. Today, there are tribes whose traditional beliefs are to distance themselves from the deceased. It would not be surprising that some of these tribes have their members in that resting place. Surely, one of the saddest points is that these so called 'patients' never had the representation to give them any fair amount of justice before being cast for the remainder of their lives in a dark, strange and unforgiving quasi-prison. Perhaps, in the present day, we may be acquainted with their extended family members, but will never fathom the distant past yet nearness of this country's society and its unceasing de-humanization of the first inhabitants.