Native American Gulag: The Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery

Native American Gulag: The Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery

The perverse history of governmental-Lakota/Dakota relations took a more sinister turn when the Hiawatha Insane Asylum was built 10 years after Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890. It operated for over 30 years before it was torn down. The bodies of those Indian men and women who died there are buried under what is now a golf course in Canton, South Dakota.

After the military wars against Indian 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 former 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 Hummel 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.

Then, 100 years after Wounded Knee, freelance investigative reporter Harold Ironshield (Yankton:1945-2008) researched the former asylum and the inmates whose known names are listed as buried at the site. Ironshield asked Indian publications to list the names in the hopes that living family members would recognize them and come forward. He wanted to know what the families might want to do about the graves and whether the remains should be moved. He also wanted more information on the history of the asylum, 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 discipline in school. He suggested that the asylum was more gulag than governmental response to the mental health of Indians.

The names of those buried in the Hiawatha Asylum Cemetery are:

  1. Long Time Owl Woman
  1. Juanita Castildo
  1. Mary Fairchild
  1. Lucy Reed
  1. Minnie La Count
  1. Sylvia Ridley
  1. Edith Standing Bear
  1. Chur Ah Tah E Kah
  1. Ollie House
  1. Asal Tcher
  1. Alice Short
  1. Enos Pah
  1. Baby Ruth Enas Pah
  1. Agnes Sloan
  1. E We Jar
  1. Kaygwaydahsegaik
  1. Chee
  1. Emma Gregory
  1. Magwon
  1. Kay Ge Gah Aush Eak
  1. Kaz Zhe Ah Bow
  1. Blue Sky
  1. Louise McIntosh
  1. Jane Burch
  1. Dupue
  1. Maggie Snow
  1. Lupe Maria
  1. Lizzie Vipont
  1. Mary Peirre
  1. Nancy Chewie
  1. Ruth Chief on Top
  1. Mary G. Buck
  1. Cecile Comes at Night
  1. Maud Magpie
  1. Poke Ah Dab Ab
  1. Sits in it
  1. Josephine Wells
  1. A.B. Blair
  1. Josephine Pajihatakana
  1. Baby Caldwell
  1. Sallie Seabott
  1. Selina Pilon
  1. Mrs. Twoteeth
  1. Kayso
  1. Josephine De Couteau
  1. Jessie Hallock
  1. Marie Pancho
  1. Ede Siroboz
  1. Kiger
  1. Mary Bah
  1. Cynia Houle
  1. Drag Toes
  1. Charlie Brown
  1. Jacob Hayes
  1. Toby
  1. Tracha
  1. Hon Sah Sah Kah
  1. Big Day
  1. Fred Takesup
  1. Peter Greenwood
  1. Robert Brings Plenty
  1. Nadesooda
  1. Taistoto
  1. James Chief Crow
  1. Yells at Night
  1. John Woodruff
  1. George Beautiste
  1. Baptiste Gingras
  1. Lowe War
  1. Silas Hawk
  1. Red Cloud
  1. Howling Wolf
  1. Antone
  1. Arch Wolf
  1. Frank Starr
  1. Joseph Taylor
  1. Amos Brown
  1. James Crow Lightening
  1. John Martin
  1. Red Crow
  1. James Blackeye
  1. Abraham Meachern
  1. Aloysious Moore
  1. Tom Floodwood
  1. James Black Bull
  1. Benito Juan
  1. Seymour Wauketch
  1. Anselmo Lucas
  1. Chico Francisco
  1. Roy Wolfe
  1. Matt Smith
  1. Two Teeth
  1. Pugay Beel
  1. Merbert Conley
  1. Jack Root
  1. Charlie Clafflin
  1. John Hall
  1. Amos Deer
  1. Ne Bow O Sah
  1. Thomas Chasing Bear
  1. Dan Ach Onginiwa
  1. Joseph Bigname
  1. Falkkas
  1. Steve Simons
  1. James Two Crows
  1. F.C. Eagle
  1. Andrew Dancer
  1. Apolorio Moranda
  1. Harry Miller
  1. Herbert Iron
  1. Fred Collins
  1. John Coal on Fire
  1. Joseph D. Marshall
  1. Willie George
  1. James Hathorn
  1. Ira Girstean
  1. Edward Hedges
  1. Omudis
  1. Guy Crow Neck
  1. John Big
  1. A. Kennedy

Native people from all over the country were placed in the asylum. The records show that the physical conditions were horrific. Besides being shackled to beds and pipes, the patients were made to wallow in their own body wastes and clean sheets were not regularly issued. In Dr. Hummel’s opinion, insanity was increasing among natives, and he was perhaps right in the sense that the well documented starvation on reservations during that historical period was causing pain and suffering, and Indians torn from their cultures were being pushed down narrower and narrower corridors of forced “civilization” and “assimilation.”

The full truth about this chamber of horrors may never be fully known, but it was clearly a case of medicine and politics making a most poisonous mix.

Laura Waterman Wittstock’s book with Dick Bancroft’s photographs, We Are Still Here: A Photographic History of the American Indian Movement, was released in May, 2013.


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