Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians


Institutionalizing inconvenient Indians

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 with 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 worried about Indians? And, whoever went to South Dakota, anyway?

After three decades of complacency, both the superintendent and the city of Canton were surprised to discover that someone did care, and that a bitter fight to shut the asylum down was about to begin. In this disturbing tale, Carla Joinson unravels the question of why this institution continued for so many years. She also investigates those who allowed Canton Asylum's mismanagement to reach such staggering proportions and asks why its administrators and staff were so indifferent to the misery experienced by patients.

Grim Shadows is the harrowing tale of the mistreatment of Native American patients at a notorious insane asylum whose history helps us to understand the mistreatment of Native peoples under forced federal assimilation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Institutions filled with discontented people will always have problems. So it was at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians. No patient wanted to be there, its employees were overworked and underpaid, and its superintendent, Dr. Harry R. Hummer, had a reputation for combining arrogance and petty self-interest with an exacting nature and an explosive temper. It had taken two decades to ratchet up the tension to near flash point, but now the bickering and accusations of mismanagement demanded that an outsider come in and see once and for all what was going on. Dr. Samuel Silk, a senior medical officer at the federal government’s psychiatric hospital in Washington dc, was that outsider.

Silk expected to find some problems when he arrived at the small federal facility for insane Indians on March 20, 1929. However, he had not expected to see an epileptic girl shackled to a water pipe. He had not expected to see a ten-year-old boy in a straitjacket, in a padlocked room. Nor had he expected to see a bedridden, helpless man with a brain tumor also padlocked in a room. With growing revulsion, Silk discovered that patients were sometimes restrained for months in metal wristlets—so long, in fact, that attendants occasionally lost the keys and had to saw through the links to free their captives. Urinals didn’t flush, the air inside the wards reeked of excreta from overflowing chamber pots, and the corridors and rooms were dark and unforgivably squalid. in Silk’s words, the Canton Asylum was a place of padlocks and chamber pots. He found one elderly female attendant charged with caring for all the female patients on two stories in the main building as well as those in the separate hospital; the same . . .

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