In 1899 the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians came into being – at least on paper. Its “intent” was to be a hospital dedicated solely to the ‘mental illness problem’ within the Native American Community at that point in history.
In actuality, this was not the first mental hospital of its kind. In 1873 the Cherokee Council created a home for the deaf, blind and insane that was exclusively for Cherokee use. The difference between the Cherokee’s hospital and Hiawatha was that Hiawatha’s actual intent was to be little more than a warehouse for ‘problem’ Indians.
The brainchild of an Indian agent and Republican Senator R.F. Pettigrew, Hiawatha was considered to be yet another medium for social change for Indian communities.
Hiawatha’s building broke ground in 1901 in the tiny town of Canton, South Dakota. The asylum itself consisted of a three story main building with four wings. This building sat on a hill outside of Canton, on the site where the Canton-Inwood hospital sits now. Behind the main building several barns were built, two of which remain today.
In later years a surgery/hospital building was built directly to the East of the main building, its purpose being to house TB patients or to accommodate infirmary needs.
A seven foot high fence surrounded the asylum. Designed to keep patients in and the public out, two steel gates with the words “Hiawatha Asylum For Insane Indians” set in wrought iron in an arch above them were the only way in or out of the property.
Hiawatha accepted its first patient on December 31, 1902. A year later there were 16 patients. By the time the asylum was closed in 1934, hundreds of Native Americans would have passed through its doors, many of them never seeing their homes or loved ones ever again.
The first Administrator was a former mayor of Canton and Representative, Oscar Gifford. The man solely responsible for bringing the asylum to the tiny town, Gifford had no medical experience, just a head for business. He’d drafted the land deal that secured the property upon which the asylum sat. The Bureau of Indian Affairs deemed him worthy to run the hospital because of this and a man with absolutely no knowledge of mental illness was placed in charge of a mental hospital.
From the start Hiawatha was poorly staffed and badly run. Kicking, striking, shaking or choking were considered acceptable means of control, “treatment” was doing housekeeping and yard work.
The asylum lacked formal commitment procedures save the Commissioner of Indian Affairs was to authorize all admissions. The Commissioner almost always got the referral from the Indian Agent who ran the reservation. If the Commissioner agreed and there was an available bed, the person was as good as committed. Hiawatha even admitted children, normally without parental consent or even notice sometimes. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs had ultimate say over the lives of all Natives on the reservations.
To this end, Hiawatha easily became a warehouse for ‘problem’ Indians, effectively turning it into a prison.
Gifford ultimately had a brief tenure as Hiawatha’s Administrator due to his incompetence but, ironically, it was also Gifford who unknowingly provided one of the few remaining and forever present links to Hiawatha’s past – the cemetery. He ordered it started when the first patient died in 1903. Sitting to the far east of the hospital, over a stream and on top of a hill the cemetery was well out of view of the hospital buildings themselves.
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.
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 harassment by his employees and rumors of patient abuse.
If one goes to the state historical archives in South Dakota, they can follow a sparse and dotted path through what little documentation there is regarding the asylum.
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.
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 physician 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 troublemakers 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.
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.