Dark History: Canton, South Dakota’s Hiawatha Indian Asylum

Richard F. Pettigrew, South Dakota, Indian insane asylum, Canton, bill, Senate, Committee on Indian Affairs, segregation, mental health, indigenous, facility, construction, funding, appropriation bill, Oscar Sherman Gifford, superintendent, Dr. John F. Turner, physician, Edward Hedges, Hon sah sah hah, Osage, Hiawatha, humane treatment, Dr. Harry R. Hummer, St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Norman Ewing, Bureau of Indian Affairs, investigation, closure, Secretary Harold W. Ickes, gravesite, history, lesson

On May 8, 1897, Senator Richard F. Pettigrew of South Dakota presented a bill in the Senate to create an “Indian insane asylum” in Canton. The bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by Pettigrew. It proposed the segregation of indigenous individuals with mental health issues from non-indigenous populations, necessitating a dedicated facility. The bill allocated $150,000 for the construction of the asylum, equivalent to about $5.6 million today. Although Pettigrew faced challenges in passing the bill in its original form, it was eventually included as an amendment to the general appropriations bill and passed in early 1899.

The community of Canton anticipated significant construction activity, with plans to build the asylum and associated outbuildings on the site. The facility was projected to accommodate 500 people, and the federal government was expected to spend $100,000 annually on staffing and operations, about $3.8 million in today’s dollars.

The site for the asylum, located an eighth of a mile east of Canton, was purchased for $30 per acre, totaling 160 acres intended for farming and livestock raising. Construction was slated to begin in the summer, with completion targeted for fall 1902.

Oscar Sherman Gifford was appointed as the first superintendent of the facility despite having no medical background; his previous roles included being a lawyer, judge, former mayor of Canton, and a U.S. Representative. Dr. John F. Turner, who had previously worked at the Cheyenne Agency at Eagle Butte, was hired as a physician.

The asylum, which later became known as Hiawatha, admitted its first patient, Edward Hedges, on December 30, 1902, who was referred to as an inmate. The second patient, Hon sah sah hah from the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, arrived on June 3, 1903, and was expected to spend his life there. He passed away on October 23, 1905. More patients followed over the years.

By 1905, the institution was commonly known as Hiawatha. Reports circulated across the U.S. describing the treatment of the “insane red man” at Hiawatha, often portraying a misleadingly gentle rehabilitation experience. However, humane treatment was scarce. 1908, Gifford resigned under pressure, and Dr. Harry R. Hummer from St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington D.C. took over. Although 108 patients had been admitted by then, 22 were cured and released, 23 were deceased, and 63 were still in care, conditions worsened under Dr. Hummer. Inspections were manipulated to show only the best-maintained wards, hiding the dire conditions elsewhere where patients were often restrained and neglected.

In 1915, Norman Ewing (Flying Iron), a worker at the asylum, reported the abusive conditions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He was subsequently transferred. An investigation in 1926 revealed many patients did not meet the criteria for insanity, prompting calls for the asylum’s closure. It finally shut down in 1933, following the dismissal of Dr. Hummer by Secretary Harold W. Ickes. The local community, which had benefited economically from the asylum, protested its closure. The remaining patients were either released or transferred to St. Elizabeth’s for better and less costly care.

Today, only a cemetery remains on the Hiawatha golf course, holding the graves of over 121 individuals from more than 63 tribes, a silent testament to the asylum’s dark history. It’s crucial to remember this place and the people it affected, lest history’s lessons be forgotten.

Suggested further reading:

Canton Indian Insane Asylum – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canton_Indian_Insane_Asylum 

The inhumane history of Canton’s Hiawatha Indian Asylum: Looking Back. https://www.argusleader.com/story/opinion/voices/2024/04/21/the-inhumane-history-of-cantons-hiawatha-indian-asylum-looking-back/73369047007/ 

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians – U.S. National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/places/canton-asylum-for-insane-indians.htm

Canton Asylum for Insane Indians – South Dakota. https://history.sd.gov/Archives/forms/indian%20archives/Indian%20Archives%20Project/canton.pdf 

South Dakota was once home to nation’s only insane asylum for Native …. https://www.keloland.com/news/investigates/history-of-hiawatha-the-threat-behind-the-indian-boarding-schools/ 

The nation’s only insane asylum for Indians was in South Dakota. https://indianz.com/News/2018/09/28/the-nations-only-insane-asylum-for-india.asp

Dark History: Canton, South Dakota’s Hiawatha Indian Asylum

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