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A Haunting Legacy:
Canton Insane Asylum for American Indians
By Elizabeth Stawicki
December 9, 1997
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

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 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.

SFX: Golf course
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.

SFX: Golf course, birds.
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.

SFX: Drum

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.

SFX: Golf course.

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.

SFX: Tee-off.