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Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians

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    Peter was a Gros Ventre man, aka the A'aninin, White Clay People Curtis, Edward S, photographer. Moving camp--Atsina. November 19. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, .
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  • Joe Wolfe (1902 - 1969)
    Joe Wolfe was an Eastern Cherokee man from the Qualla Boundry, North Carolina The Qualla Boundary Source: Qualla and 3200 Acre Tracts, Cherokee Indian Reservation, North Carolina "Compiled and ...
  • Fidel Vigil, (Mute) (1917 - 1935)
    Fidel was a Jicarilla Apache man Source: “Jicarilla Apache.”, 3 Sept. 2023, Accessed 8 June 2024. Source: Curtis, Edward S, photo...
  • Peter L. Turpin (c.1889 - d.)
    Peter was a Chippewa man from the White Earth band of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe of the Mississippi River Band Mississippi River Band of Chippewa Indians (Ojibwe: Gichi-ziibiwininiwag) or simply the...

Canton was a first: the first and only federal facility intended for the care of “insane” Indian people.

See the related project: Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery for those known to have been buried there. This project is for profiles associated with the Hiawatha Asylum in Canton, South Dakota in any aspect: residents, staff, local politicians, even the current day activists bringing attention to this “forgotten” piece of American history.

"The idea for the institution came from Peter Couchman, U.S. Indian Agent at the Cheyenne River Agency, who wrote in a letter to South Dakota Senator Richard Pettrigrew of the need for a separate facility to hold the “demented Indians” that he kept incarcerated in the reservation guardhouse." ~ see

The link below provides access to a Google Sheet that is editable by anyone. It’s purpose is to provide a tool in support of the Keepers of the Story and the South Dakota Historical Society in their effort to identity both ancestors and descendants of these 405+/- patient inmates at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Along with our colleagues at Wikitree who have created "Welcome to the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians Study!" here:, the harnessing of the power of genealogical users on both platforms would seem an ideal solution to the genealogical effort needed for such a task.

Please be careful when using Google Sheet features as they may have unintended consequences as this sheet, to be accessible to everyone, is totally unlocked.

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, renamed the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, the First Federal Mental Hospital for an Ethnic Group , was created by Congress in 1898 to confine Native Americans who were thought to be insane by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents.[1] It opened in January 1903

Begun as a pork-barrel project by the federal government in the early 1900s, the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians quickly became a dumping ground for inconvenient Indians. The federal institution in Canton, South Dakota, deprived many Native patients of their freedom without genuine cause, often requiring only the signature of a reservation agent. Only nine Native patients in the asylum’s history were committed by court order. Without interpreters, mental evaluations, or therapeutic programs, few patients recovered. But who cared about Indians and what went on in South Dakota? [16]. On Dec. 31, 1902, the asylum received its first patient, Edward Hedges, from the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska.

The first administrator was Hon. Oscar Sherman Gifford, the man who had initiated bringing the institution to Canton and had worked on the land deal. [2] [3] [4] [30]

Dr. Harry R. Hummer was the asylum's superintendent from 1908 until its closing.[5] [30]

Dr. Harry Hummer replaced Gifford and the rest, as they say, is history - all of it bad. Dr. Hummer was in his late twenties, an arrogant man with a megalomaniac streak.  He hated the west, hated his employees and loathed the patients he'd been sent to work with.  He would spend the next twenty years running the asylum with an iron fist.

“Hummer relied on nine diagnoses — dementia praecox, epilepsies, congenital imbecility, intoxication psychoses, manic-depressive insanity, senile psychoses, arterio-sclerotic dementia, hysteria and paranoia — as justifications for keeping patients at the asylum. Though many of them did not apply, the reality nonetheless under Hummer was that those sent to Canton seldom left the facility except through death.” [36]

Patients were kept highly drugged, their files incomplete or entirely missing.  Patients who were deemed worthy for 'treatment' (ie, going outside to do yard work) were allowed outside.  Problematic patients were not allowed outside at all, which no doubt proved torturous for People who lived, thrived and worshiped out of doors.

The patient ratio was one or two employees to an entire ward, which could consist of up to 20 or 30 patients at any given time.  Actual nurses were not hired at Hiawatha until its last few years.  Up until that point 'locals' were hired to work as attendants and they were very much so out numbered.

In spite of his distaste for the west, Dr. Hummer had no problem banding with the city of Canton to make the asylum a money making property.    Under the guise of 'opening his hospital to the medical community to show them his success', Hummer and the Chamber of Commerce also opened the asylum to the public on certain days so that not only medical professionals could come view the "ill" Indians, the public could as well.

They  advertised in papers as far away as Minneapolis and St. Louis, inviting vacationers to "come see the crazy indians".  For quite a while, showcasing the Indians in a 'cleaned up area' of the hospital became a popular money maker for both Hummer and the City.

Within the hospital, beyond the public display, the patients lived in filth, without plumbing - because the good doctor would not allow it to be properly installed - and without electricity - not because they didn't have it, but because Dr. Hummer would not allow it to be used.

Dr. Hummer seemed to be under the impression that if he didn't spend all of the money allotted to him for the year by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and he sent it back, then they'd transfer him out. It was a practice that worked against him, keeping him securely in place as hospital Administrator, in spite of repeated allegations of sexual harrassment by his employees and rumors of patient abuse…

…Finding the staff grossly uneducated and inappropriately accredited to work with mentally ill patients, Dr. Edwards' findings show underhanded processes at work without even actually pointing out the wrongs in question.

For years in his annual reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hummer had blown his own horn, praising his hospital and continually  insisting upon a constant need for Hiawatha's presence, as that there was a severe need within the Native community for mental health attention yet Dr. Edwards found  the patient records grossly incomplete.

Patients were 'diagnosed' under several headings yet showed no signs or symptoms of what they were alleged to have.  The asylum worked at over one hundred percent capacity and seventy percent of the patient population had lived in the asylum for over five years yet there were no histories and many of them were quite aware of their faculties.   There was little or no documentation regarding their intake, their ongoing treatment or their progression.  Since Hiawatha was being touted as a place to aid Indians in 'getting better', this stark reality points to something else entirely - ultimate warehousing.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, one of the main requirements of release from any mental hospital was sterilization.  This meant a physcian qualified to handle the procedure had to be on staff of any mental hospital.  Dr. Hummer did not hire a physician for Hiawatha so release was not an option.  Whether this was intentional is unknown but it can safely be assumed that job security was an issue.  Hummer might have despised the west and his charges, but if he was going to be trapped there, he would take the steps to make sure that his position was secure, preventing release was a good start.

So was aligning himself with underhanded Indian agents who wanted to rid their reservations of people they considered troublermakers or non-conformists. There is documentation that some patients were little more than people with a drinking problem who were secured at Hiawatha, as is there proof that horse thieves and other petty criminals made their way through Hiawatha's doors, proving that this 'hospital' was anything but. [30]

Many incarcerated there were those considered troublemakers by reservation agents. People have shared stories of the abuse they witnessed in that asylum.[6] [7] [8]

There was an investigation in 1927 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Dr. Samuel A. Silk - Clinical Director at then the country's premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth's in Washington, DC. Silk inspected the Canton asylum in 1929 and filed a detailed report of abuses."[9] Congress delayed closing the institution because of a glowing report from the Michigan Congressman. In 1929, Dr. Hummer opened a cleaned up part of the institution for tours, advertising it in distant cities, "Come see the crazy Indians."

The asylum was ordered closed in 1933 by Harold L. Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior. [10]

Of those who perished while incarcerated, nearly 400 Native inmates from across the U.S. we’re incarcerated there during its 30 years of operation, at least 121 (recent ground penetrating surveys suggest many more) representing 63 distinctly different tribes were placed in the asylum cemetery in unmarked graves, unmarked, because the BIA had determined that stone markers “were unwarranted,” were likely those who died so far from home that their families could not effect return. The buildings are gone now to make room for a hospital. The cemetery remains, but is surrounded by a golf course.

Anyone following the inspections and various reports made on the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians might well feel amazed that Dr. Harry Hummer managed to continue as superintendent there. Several inspectors suggested outright that he be dismissed from the place, while others pointed out personality clashes and poor management practices that led to problems in the facility. However, it wasn’t until the very end of his career that Hummer expressed much concern about keeping his job. Why was he so self-assured?

For one thing, Hummer was often able to dismiss or explain criticisms in a way that convinced superiors that there wasn’t a real problem. Secondly, for many years no one with medical expertise inspected the asylum, and so Hummer’s treatment of patients never came into question. Issues with personnel or poor farming and so on, may have been legitimately of secondary concern to Hummer’s supervisors in Washington, DC. Finally, Hummer (reportedly) bragged to some of his acquaintances that he had friends in Washington who would protect him.
Robert Valentine, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Beginning June 1909

In a letter dated December 13, 1909 and written to the Indian Rights Association shortly after his resignation from the asylum, Dr. L. M. Hardin seems to confirm Hummer’s belief. “There has been nothing done by the [Indian] Office to date looking towards a correction of the existing conditions at the institution by the removal of Dr. Hummer as prayed for by the employees in their sworn charges,” Hardin wrote bitterly. He continued by saying that: “such a man whose inefficiency and incompetency is supported by one of his friends in the Office, viz, Walter Fry, 1st asst, to Mr. Dortch of the Div. of Education and who evidently is sidetracking the justice that should be met out to Dr. Hummer.” [16]


Please locate or create profiles and trees for the people associated with the Hiawatha Asylum. You may find relevant names in the list of references.

Authors and activists

  • Clifford Whittingham Beers (March 30, 1876 – July 9, 1943) was the founder of the American mental hygiene movement.
  • “Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum Action Committee” (see the 2013 USA Today article, S.D. revisits past at Native American insane asylum (document attached)).
  • Harold Iron Shield. “Twenty-five years ago, a Lakota named Harold Iron Shield started a healing and prayer service at the golf course cemetery that continued for two decades. When Iron Shield died in 2008, the ceremony faded away.”
  • “Keepers of the Hiawatha story” (“Inside KELOLAND: History of Hiawatha Asylum” - YouTube)


There were more then 350 patients detained at Hiawatha between 1903-1934 We know of 121 buried at the Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery.

Here are a few others, where we know more of their story than just a name:

Patient Online Resources

Politicians and Officials


  • Clara Christopher
  • Ada DeCrory (Attendant) (Source: Riley, SDSHS, 1997)
  • Benjamin DeCrory (Attendant) (Source: Riley, SDSHS, 1997)
  • Lorena L. Sinning (Nurse) (Source: Riley, SDSHS, 1997)
  • Dr. John Turner. When a patient became pregnant because employees hadn’t followed Turner’s instructions during his absence, he filed a complaint in December, 1906, with the supervisor of Indian schools, Charles Dickson. Turner’s complaint resulted in Canton Asylum’s first major (and negative) inspection.

Research Notes

  • “I will never forget Mary Pierre. I did not know her. I don’t know if she had children, had a favorite color, or if she looked at that Canton sky and dreamed of home. But I know I tied a black ribbon to the west for her. She died there on May 16, 1917. And I will never forget that. Or the lives of the 121 Native Americans who represent 49 nations that lie in unmarked graves between the 4th and 5th fairway.”
Dana Lonehill…………………………………………..Photo from the blog at
Monday, 20 May 2013

  • The asylum's graveyard is unmarked, on city-owned Hiawatha Golf Club course, between the fourth and fifth fairways.

  • Throughout the 20th century, the United States also incarcerated Native people under the guise of mental treatment. Founded in 1902, the Hiawatha Insane Asylum was the first federally funded mental asylum built for that purpose. Many Native Americans ended up there by opposing business interests or arguing with a reservation agent, and it's impossible to know exactly how many people died there.
  • By April 1934, Hiawatha Asylum had officially closed, although South Dakota continued to use it as a penitentiary until 1946. (Read More:
  • One senator: Richard Franklin Pettigrew, United States Senator from South Dakota, In office November 2, 1889 – March 3, 1901 testified:

“It has been well established that the percentage of insanity is greater among half-breeds than among full-blooded Indians. That is explained by the theory of crossbreeding, that has a tendency to weaken the race. For this reason it is confidently expected by those who have made a study of these conditions, that the rate of insanity will greatly increase as our civilization grows.”

  • Most insane asylums tried to use patient labor as a way of holding down costs, or as a sort of occupational therapy. At the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Dr. Harry Hummer had a real mission to hold down expenses, since he knew that his small facility didn’t have the economies of scale that larger institutions did.
Patients Sewing at the Cherokee State Hospital for the Insane, early 1900s
The hospital built at the Canton Asylum in ?

  • When John Collier was appointed as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, he was asked to investigate the case of a man kept at the asylum because of schizophrenia. Collier personally went to the asylum and found that the patient was not mentally ill. According to Collier: “the institution was so outrageously cruel and injurious that we would deserve to be blown out of the water if we continued it.”

Collier fired the administrator and sent a doctor-someone who actually had medical credentials and experience in the mental health field-out to the asylum to determine who was actually mentally ill and who was not.

  • Dr. Silk wrote in his report that Hiawatha Asylum was a place of all around "intolerable conditions," with the "poorest kind of medical care," whose cleanliness was "very much below the standard of a modern prison." Even he was able to admit that "at the time of inspection of the Institution [patients] did not show any active evidence of mental disease."
  • In 1929, psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Silk of St. Elizabeths Hospital, the federal mental hospital in Washington, described the Canton asylum as “a place of padlocks and chamber pots,” where reservations sent patients they weren’t able to care for. He noted a lack of real medical facilities, and that “several patients exhibited no symptoms of mental illness,” according to a 1998 National Park Service document. @
  • The city of Canton pushed back against the closure of Hiawatha, claiming that it would result in a loss of jobs for the area. G.J. Moen, part of the Canton Chamber of Commerce, even filed an injunction to prevent the closure, but it was overturned in federal court.
Argus-Leader Archive, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sat. Dec. 11, 1920, Page 3

  • “Senator Pettigrew saw this as his solution to the ‘Indian problem.’ And he also saw this as a moneymaker,” A moneymaker it was–thousands of tourists flocked to the asylum, buying up souvenir plates and spoons.

  • “The first major inspection came in 1923, followed by another in 1926 when Dr. Herbert Edwards, Medical Field Secretary of the National Tuberculosis Association and a member of the Meriam Commission, investigated the asylum. The results of this investigation became part of what is now known as "The Meriam Report". It was this report that revealed the dark side of the asylum and began a process of increased investigation of the hospital. Finding the staff grossly uneducated and inappropriately accredited to work with mentally ill patients, Dr. Edwards' findings show underhanded processes at work without even actually pointing out the wrongs in question… While this is not pointed out in the Meriam Report it is certainly alluded to and because of the Report's publication in 1928, the fact of Hiawatha's ultimate use while in existence would be called into question repeatedly, and with good reason. The Meriam Report stated that "practically every activity undertaken by the national government for the protection of the health of Indians is below a reasonable standard of efficiency". It should be noted that the Meriam Report was an investigation into federal Indian policy, not just the asylum, but the statement from the report spoke volumes when uttered in conjunction with Hiawatha's name. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs found the Report disturbing enough to call a special inquest. A doctor from the staff of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington D.C. was to go to Canton and investigate the hospital. Dr. Hummer offered his full cooperation, not realizing that what this doctor would find would be the beginning of the end.”

From: Their Blood Cries Up From The Ground @
Curator Note: This photo may be a misleading as it was apparently taken after the asylum ceased operations. There are no known interior photos of the Hiawatha Asylum during its time of operation. [13]

An infamous fact about the closing of the Asylum in 1934 is how hard the Canton Chamber of Commerce fought to keep it open. Repeated petitions to the Congress, the state, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs went for naught. But the chamber was dogged, and not just because of the jobs that would be lost. The prosperous former capital of the “Dacotah Territory” had developed a new revenue stream.

For the last several years, a tourist trade had been built up by the city fathers. Steven Silberman, in Neurotribes, writes that “Ads in newspapers invited the public to a cleaned up area of the hospital to “come see the crazy Indians.” It became Canton’s rallying cry; and come they did from hundreds of miles in every direction to see the monsters of the Canton midway. The trade was immortalized on the official historical plaque for the asylum: “Patients did domestic and agricultural work onsite, were occasionally shown to paying visitors, and underwent treatment with methods later deemed to be outdated and dehumanizing.”

“Paying visitors” watched sad Lizzie Vipont mourn her child while doing beadwork, and that was not considered “outdated and dehumanizing.” Silberman further writes that “a psychiatrist named Samuel Silk revealed [Asylum Superintendent Harry] Hummer, the only doctor at the facility for 23 years, had quietly turned the institution into a prison for Native men and women on reservations deemed troublesome by federal agents.

“Diagnosed as insane by Hummer without a shred of medical evidence, they were confined in shackles, chains, and straitjackets, with no possibility of parole to visit their families, often for the rest of their lives. Patients routinely ate on the floor, were locked up each night with no access to toilets, and were denied basic medical care. Lacking any legal means to contest their confinement, most of the patients admitted to the asylum also died there.”

Thirty-two years earlier, in 1902, J.R. Brennan, United States Indian Agent for the Sicangu Lakota on the Rosebud Reservation observed in his annual Commissioner’s Report that “These Indians are so susceptible to the evil effects of confinement that to them a sentence to a few years in the penitentiary is equivalent to a sentence to death.” A prophecy as regards the inmates of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

  • From: Rooks, David. “A 21-Arrow Salute: ‘Come See the Crazy Indians.’” Indian Country Today (ICT) News, 14 June 2016. [39]


Lincoln County

Hiawatha Insane Asylum
Canton, South Dakota

(From the announcement for the Tenth Annual Memorial Prayer Ceremony in Canton in 1998:)

"In 1898, Congress passed a bill creating the first and only Institution for insane Indians in the United States. The doors of the asylum, located just over the Nebraska border in Canton, South Dakota, were first opened for the reception of patients in January 1903. Department of Interior investigators revealed that during the time the asylum housed patients, many died because they were denied medical care. According to Harold Iron Shield, founder of the Native American Reburial Restoration Committee, patients were "traditional spiritual people or teenagers who misbehaved or people the Indian Agent didn't like." A 1933 investigation conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that "a large number" of patients showed no signs of mental illness.

Land was set aside for a cemetery, but the Indian Office decided that stone markers for graves would be an unwarranted expense. Today, the cemetery (121 names) is located in the middle of a golf course in Canton. No one knows the cause of death of the incarcerated or why they were even at the asylum. The National Park Service has recently added the cemetery to the National Register of Historic Places."
-courtesy Historic Asylums

A Haunting Legacy - Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians

By Elizabeth Stawicki
December 9, 1997
Asylum postcard, Canton, South Dakota, 1911

A page is missing from most history books - the story of the federal government's Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians. Located in the tiny town of Canton, South Dakota, it was the first and only federal asylum created solely for American Indians. During its 32 years, it would house more than 350 Indians from tribes throughout North America.

The Indian affairs commissioner under President Roosevelt called reports of the asylum "reminiscent of the terrible indictments Charles Dickens leveled against English poorhouses and schools."

Documents show some who were confined at Canton had no mental illness at all but were confined there because they fought with a white man or an agency.

CLOUDS LOOM LARGE LIKE PHANTOMS over South Dakota's flatland. In the state's southeastern corner: the town of Canton, population 2800.

On the town's east end golfers play the city's Hiawatha course. This course contains 121 graves clustered between the fourth and fifth fairways. These graves hold the remains of Indians who died in the federal government's Canton insane asylum.

Just how these men, women, and children buried here lived and died at Canton remains a mystery. What does remain of their lives is listed on a beige stone on the burial ground's west side. That stone holds a dark plaque which lists their names and dates of death.

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: 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 19-2.

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:

Christopher: 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."

The bulk of information about the asylum's operation, patients, and staff comes from the writings of Dr. Samuel Silk - Clinical Director at then the country's premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth's in Washington, DC. Silk inspected the Canton asylum in 1929 and filed a report:

Silk’s 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 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.

32-year-old Frank Hart is a living link to the asylum's history. While researching his family tree he discovered his great grandfather had been held at the Canton asylum. Hart, an Ojibwe who lives in Calgary, Alberta sifts through a small file he's collected about his family; all that remains of his great-grandfather's life are a few government documents. Hart says his great grandfather Marcus served on the Red Lake Tribal Council of the Minnesota Ojibwe:

Hart : 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 a Red Lake Reservation superintendent committed Hart to the Canton asylum after he showed symptoms of senile psychosis during a hospital stay. The records indicate Hart was a heavy drinker who one night lay down in a fire and suffered second- and third-degree burns. Frank Hart says his relatives have never talked to him about alcoholism and his great-grandfather.

Records show Indians such as Marcus Hart were stripped of their Indian identities upon arrival at the Canton asylum. authorities would have spoken to him in a language he would've struggled to understand. Hart would've gone from the open woods of northern Minnesota to being locked in a ward where sealed windows held in the stench of un-emptied chamberpots filled with human waste.

At night, the only light flickered from an attendant's lantern passing occasionally on rounds.

Golfer Arne Lunder is one of the asylum's last living witnesses. He's lived in Canton for 84 years. Today he plays the course's sixth hole. To his left is the Indian burial ground. He remembers accompanying his mother on visits there.

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 (he laughs) and drug her up the steps. It really impressed me; I thought it was kinda cruel.

Even for its time, the asylum did not meet minimum standards required of an institution treating the mentally ill. Gerald Grob, a professor of history and medicine at Rutgers University is a leading authority on the history of US mental health policy.

Grob: 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.

During a subsequent investigation, St. Elizabeth's Dr. Silk concluded many of the Indians confined at Canton were locked up because they had clashed with white men, a school or an agency - not because they were mentally ill.

Silk's report: 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 girl who suffered from epilepsy miraculously escaped severe burns even though she was chained near a hot water pipe during her seizures.

University of South Dakota history professor Herbert Hoover says the creation of the asylum most likely grew out of an ignorance of Indian culture; not an organized plot designed 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 in 1902, a time when the United States' official Indian policy was assimilation. Hoover's University of South Dakota colleague Leonard Bruguier says whatever the intent behind the asylum, it was a convenient tool for reservation agents. Bruguier is a member of the Yankton Sioux and director of the Institute of American Indian studies at the University of South Dakota.

Bruguier: 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.

John Collier, the commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Roosevelt administration ordered the Canton asylum closed and the patients sent to St. Elizabeth's in Washington DC. In response, the residents of Canton waged a federal court battle to keep the asylum open. The asylum was a major contributor to Canton's economy in 1933; a time when the country was plunged deep into economic depression. 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 closed the Canton insane asylum in December, 1933. Dr. Samuel Silk immediately sent 17 Indians home. Some who were freed had been confined at the Canton asylum as long as 16 years. Another 69 including Frank Hart's great grandfather required hospitalization and were sent by train to St. Elizabeth's hospital. Most of them would spend the rest of their lives institutionalized.

A decade after the asylum closed, the federal government sold the property to the city of Canton for one dollar. The county attorney at the time was Craig Brown. Brown says none of the local officials at the time thought it unusual to build a golf course on the land, even if 121 bodies were buried there.

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

Harold Iron Shield, a member of the Lakota nation's Yankton tribe, holds ceremonies at the grave site each May remembering those who lived and died at the asylum. Iron Shield believes the federal government used the Canton asylum to jail Indians who wouldn't conform:

Iron Shield: 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 change.

Some representatives of tribes contacted by MPR said privately they didn't want to talk about the Canton asylum because doing so might create more conflict with the federal government. But Leonard Bruguier of the University of South Dakota has another theory why many native people won't talk about the Canton asylum: 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:

Bruguier: 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 from again.

The legacy of the Canton asylum exists today, here at the Hiawatha golf course where the graveyard of 121 Canton patients exists between the fourth and fifth fairways.

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. Meanwhile, the course has moved the fifth hole's teebox 20 yards further away from the graves.

On this day, 10 American Indian men including Harold Iron Shield crouch at the base of the stone. They burn sage, smoke tobacco, and pray for the spirits here.

Iron Shield has petitioned the state of South Dakota to declare the land a historic site.

In the past, Hiawatha golfers sometimes hit balls off the graves. But now they've adopted a rule that if a ball lands on a grave, the player will take a free drop and play the shot outside the cemetery.

Source: Stawicki, E. (1997, December 9). A Haunting Legacy Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians . USGenWeb® - Always Free.

Hiawatha Insane Asylum - an American Gulag

The perverse history of governmental-Lakota/Dakota relations took a more sinister turn when in 1900 (ten years after Wounded Knee), the Hiawatha Insane Asylum was built. It operated for over thirty years, then was torn down. The bodies of those native people who died there are buried under what is now a golf course in Canton, South Dakota.

After the wars against native 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 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 Hummer 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.

Now, freelance investigative reporter Harold Ironshield has been researching the former asylum and the inmates whose known names are listed as buried at the site. Ironshield is requesting native publications to list the names in the hopes that living family members will recognize them and come forward. He would like to know what the families might want to do about the grave and whether the remains should be moved. He also wants more information on the history of the asylum published, 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 not behaving in school. He suggests that the asylum was more gulag than governmental response to the mental health of natives.

From here, please visit the companion Project: Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery @

Source: Stawicki, E. (2018, September 10). A Haunting Legacy- Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians. Lincoln County.


1927 - Survey of Hiawatha Asylum

Samuel Silk Image 1

Copy from the National Archives September 8, 1933; 9-8-1933 government records, public domain

Name Samuel A. Silk
Occupation Doctor
Published Oct 15 1933
Washington, District Of Columbia
Publication title Evening star

Interview with “The Keepers of the Hiawatha Story” ( Aug 1, 2021) Ross Lothrop, Anne Dilenschneider, Jerry Fogg

Source: Inside KELOLAND: History of Hiawatha Asylum''

References and Further Reading

  1. “Wild Indians: Native Perspectives on the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.” By Pemina Yellow Bird. < PDF >
  2. Walker, D. E. (2018, September 13). ‘A living burial’: inside the hiawatha asylum for insane indians. Indian Country Today. Retrieved July 22, 2023, from
  3. National Park Service: Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. < link >
  4. “The asylum’s cemetery is now surrounded by a golf course — does this further delegitimize the lives of the patients kept there?”
  5. “ We went at sunset after most golfers had gone. We wished we had something to leave to pay respects. We noticed a lot of sea shells and one candle and a few hand made crosses. There was a sort of hidden gravestone to the north east side of the cemetery, keep your eyes down and you'll see it.”
  6. Wikipedia contributors. "Canton Indian Insane Asylum." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 9 Mar. 2023. Web. 22 Jul. 2023. @ cites:
    1. Canton Indian Historical Society" Archived October 15, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, National Park Service. Retrieved July 2, 2011.
    2. Still Spring Films. "Hiawatha Asylum". Archived from the original on 2011-07-11. Retrieved 2017-03-13.
    3. Bhatara, Vinod; Gupta, Sanjay; Brokenleg, Martin (1999-05-01). "The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians: The First Federal Mental Hospital for an Ethnic Group". American Journal of Psychiatry. 156 (5): 767. Retrieved 2017-03-13.
    4. Nerburn, Kent (2013). The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo : a Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky. Novato, California: New World Library. ISBN 1608680150.
  7. ”Hiawatha Insane Asylum”
  8. "If you knew the conditions..." Health Care to Native Americans < 1994 Exhibit >
  9. ”A Brief History Of The Hiawatha Asylum” Hiawatha Foundation. < link > “For the most part, the asylum and what went on there are now a forgotten part of history. A part that is acknowledged by the City of Canton on limited terms and has never been acknowledged by the history books. Information available regarding the asylum continues to be sketchy at best. One can find a few well written articles on the Internet but by and large, Hiawatha and its sins have never really been revealed to the public at large on any respectable scale. Short of one romance novel, an MPR interview spot, a pointed report regarding mental illness and Native Americans and some honorable mentions in various dissertations, the history of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians has remained one of this country's best kept secrets.”
  10. ” Putney, D. T. (1984). The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902-1934.
  11. ” Kennecke, A. (2021). History of Hiawatha: The threat behind the Indian boarding schools. Keloland News. Nexstar Media Inc. Retrieved July 22, 2023, from (Video @
  12. ” Young, S., & Leader, A. (2013, May 5). S.D. revisits past at Native American Insane Asylum. USA Today.
  13. ” Manoukian, M. (2021, June 2). The tragic true story of the hiawatha insane asylum. Grunge.
  14. ” Mihesuah, D. (2021). Becoming Insane: The Death of Arch Wolfe at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Disability Studies Quarterly, 41(2).
  15. ” Gevik, B. (2019, November 20). Canton’s Hiawatha Indian Asylum. SDPB. (A timeline of the asylum)
  16. ” Joinson, C. (2016). Vanished in Hiawatha: The story of the canton asylum for insane Indians. Bison Books, and 16b. Joinson, C. (2017, April 9). Asylums And Insanity Treatments 1800 – 1935 [web log]. Retrieved July 28, 2023, from
  17. ” Zoledziowski, A. (2021, December 17). 126 Native Americans are buried in unmarked graves at this golf course. Vice News. (Audio clip)
  18. ” Whitt, S. (2021). Indigeneity, Disability and Settler Colonialism at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902-1934. Disability Studies Quarterly, 41(4).
  19. ” Brice, A. (2020, November 19). Fiat vox ep. 66: how the u.s. government created an ‘insane asylum’ to imprison native americans. Berkeley News. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from (Audio Clip)
  20. ” Davis, S. (2017, November 13). The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. cites:
    1. Joinson, Carla. Vanished In Hiawatha. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2016.
    2. Leahy, Todd. They Called It Madness: The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1899-1934. Baltimore: Publish America. 2009.
    3. Ness, Matt. Federal Indian policy, psychiatric care, assimilation and the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Ann Arbor, MI. ProQuest 2016.
    4. Putney, Diane. "The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902-1934." South Dakota Historical Society. 1934.
    5. United States National Archives and Records Service, Indian census rolls: 1885-1940. Washington : National Archives and Records Service, 1965.
    6. Dilenschneider, Anne, 'An Invitation to Restorative Justice: The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians.' Northern Plains Ethics Journal, 2013 Cached version accessed on the World Wide Web, November 14, 2017 < PDF > page 105-128.
    7. Walker, David Edward, 'A Living Burial': Inside the Hiawatha Assylum for Insane Indians. Nov. 9, 2015 Accessed on the World Wide Web March 17, 2019,
    8. Rooks, David. 'A 21-Arrow Salute: Come See the Crazy Indians'. Published online at Indian Country Today, June 14, 2016 Accessed on the World Wide Web, Nov. 12, 2017 at 21-Arrow Salute
    9. Yellow Bird, Pemina. Native Perspectives on the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Accessed on the World Wide Web, Nov. 21, 2017.
    10. Wikipedia: Canton Indian Insane Asylum
    11. Hiawatha Asylum
    12. Gifford died Jan 16, 1917 according to Joiner, p. 140. She makes it sound like he was still working?
    13. Riney, Scott. Power and Powerlessness: The People of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. Vol. 27. No 1 and No 2, South Dakota Historical Society, copyright 1997. < link >
    14. Lincoln County: Hiawatha Insane Asylum < link >
    15. Joinson, Carla. 'Vanished In Hiawatha:The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians.' review by the author. < link >
    16. Dr. Gupta. The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians: The First Federal Mental Hospital for an Ethnic Group.The American Journal of Psychiatry. Volume 156, Issue 5, May 1999, pp. 767.
  21. Irvine, Janice, "Sociology 397AM: Asylums, Madness, and Mental Illness in American Culture" (2018). Sociology Educational Materials. 1.
  22. 2013 USA Today article, S.D. revisits past at Native American insane asylum < [ link] >; (document attached)).
  23. JOINSON, CARLA. Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. University of Nebraska Press, 2016. JSTOR, Accessed 27 July 2023 > podcast
    1. Williams, Samantha, host. Vanished in Hiawatha. The Story of Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Nov 8, 2017, UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS,
  24. Indians, Insanity, and American History Blog: Asylums And Insanity Treatments 1800 – 1935. < link > podcast.
  25. Healing, Hell, and the History of American Insane Asylums. < link >
  26. Grant Them Rest: The Canton Asylum (NOVEMBER 6, 2015) < link > cites
    1. A detailed history, in a 1984 issue of South Dakota History by Diane Putney:
    2. Includes excerpts from the 1929 report, quotes from advocates, and the names of those buried.
    3. A 2013 article in USA Today from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader with powerful interviews:
    4. On Indian Country Today Media Network, written by a relative of an inmate:
    5. An upcoming book project:
    6. Image from 1918 on Flickr:
  27. Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond Institutions. By Susan Burch. < GoogleBooks >
  28. Disability Studies Quarterly. Home / Archives / Vol. 34 No. 3 (2014): General Issue / “Miracle Madness.” by Private User. < link >
  29. Disability Studies Quarterly. Home / Archives / Vol. 41 No. 4 (2021): Fall 2021 / “Competency, Allotment, and the Canton Asylum: The Case of a Muscogee Woman.” By Anne Gregory. < link >
  30. “Their Blood Cries Up From The Ground.” < link > The first major inspection came in 1923, followed by another in 1926 when Dr. Herbert Edwards, Medical Field Secretary of the National Tuberculosis Association and a member of the Meriam Commission, investigated the asylum. The results of this investigation became part of what is now known as "The Meriam Report". It was this report that revealed the dark side of the asylum and began a process of increased investigation of the hospital.
  31. Parman, Donald L., and Lewis Meriam. “Lewis Meriam’s Letters during the Survey of Indian Affairs 1926-1927 (Part I).” Arizona and the West 24, no. 3 (1982): 253–80.
  32. The Meriam Report (1928) (official title: The Problem of Indian Administration) was commissioned by the Institute for Government Research (IGR, better known later as the Brookings Institution) and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The IGR appointed Lewis Meriam to be the technical director of the survey team to compile information and report on the conditions of American Indians across the country. Meriam submitted the 847-page report to the Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, on February 21, 1928. The report specialist for health was Dr. Herbert Edwards.
    1. 1928 Meriam Report, full text online, hosted at HathiTrust < link > Pg 306-307
    2. 1928 Meriam Report, excerpts, hosted at < link >
  34. Patient case files:
  35. Inside KELOLAND: (Aug 1, 2021) History of Hiawatha Asylum
  36. Young, S. (3013, May 5). S.d. revisits past at native american insane asylum. Argus Leader, Sioux Falls, S.D.). Retrieved July 28, 2023, from
  37. Indians, Insanity, and American History Blog: Asylums And Insanity Treatments 1800 – 1935. < link >
  38. Honoring the Dead: A Digital Archive of the Insane Indian Asylum / Stacey Berry < link >
  39. Rooks, David. “A 21-Arrow Salute: ‘Come See the Crazy Indians.’” Indian Country Today (ICT) News, 14 June 2016.