Grant Them Rest: The Canton Asylum


Remember the forgotten.
Hear our prayers of remembrance.
Feel their anger. Feel their pain.
Grant them rest.

"Solace," used with permission.

“Solace,” used with permission.

In 1898, the U.S. Congress passed a law creating a segregated asylum for native “inmates.”  Through the influence of South Dakota Senator Richard Pettigrew, it was built in Canton, South Dakota.  The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was opened in 1902.  More than 350 native persons from fifty tribes across the country were institutionalized there.  Oscar Gifford (an attorney and former Canton mayor) served as superintendent until 1908 when he left under controversy about his management of the asylum.  He was replaced by Harry Hummel, a psychiatrist, who within a year was under investigation after thirteen members of staff filed public complaint about the poor treatment of the patients.  Several times, staff, or former staff, filed complaints about his practice, his temper and personality, and his treatment of female staff.  Hummel resisted federal directives to increase staff and update treatment resources.

 Whatever the motivation for establishing the asylum, federal reservation agents had the authority to commit members of their reservation, and it has been alleged that some inmates were sent there for resistance to the agents or to American assimilation efforts.  Like many mental health facilities at the time, epilepsy and alcoholism were also valid reasons for institutionalization.  Many patients did not speak English, or did not speak it well, and they spoke many different languages.  Many were able and required to work on the farm on the property.  Families were often not allowed to see their family members at the asylum because it was thought to slow “recovery,” but recovery did not seem to be the goal.   There were even times that the superintendent brought paying tourists on tours to view the patients (which wasn’t uncommon in early asylums).

After changes in federal government policy towards their relationship with Indian tribes and many changes in mental health care standards, a major federal investigation in 1929 found conditions at the asylum intolerable–treatments being used for restraint were far outdated, medical records and records of death were inadequate, and some patients clearly did not require institutional care.  The report made the New York Times.  In 1933, the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, finally addressed the issue of the Canton asylum.  Businessmen and city leaders in Canton fought the closure, but Collier stood firm that the institution did not meet modern standards and implied that it had been left to fall apart because of the ethnicity of its patients.  Eventually, sixty-nine were moved to the federal facility in D.C., the rest released to their families.

Before the facility closed, 121 inmates died and were buried in unmarked graves there.  After closure, the state used the facility but turned it over to the city in 1946.  Most buildings were dismantled, and in the 1950s, the Hiawatha municipal golf course was built at the site.  The cemetery is surrounded by the course, now with a fence and a sign requiring golfers not to play from the cemetery grounds.  Two have stone markers now, but all the names are cast on a marker at the cemetery.  The cemetery is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.  Beginning in the 1980s, Harold Iron Shield was instrumental in raising the profile of this history, advocating for the protection of the cemetery, and organizing memorial efforts through the Friends of Hiawatha Asylum.

More on the asylum:

A detailed history, in a 1984 issue of South Dakota History by Diane Putney:  Includes excerpts from the 1929 report, quotes from advocates, and the names of those buried.

A 2013 article in USA Today from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader with powerful interviews:

On Indian Country Today Media Network, written by a relative of an inmate:

An upcoming book project:

Image from 1918 on Flickr:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s