Keepers of the Canton Indian Asylum Share History

Posted by Heather Benson on

The Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum housed nearly 400 Native inmates from across the U.S. during its 30 years of operation. It was a keystone of federal Indian policy in the early 1900s. However, more than half of the residents died of curable diseases. Anne Dilenschneider and Jerry Fogg are South Dakota Humanities Council Scholars and Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum story.  You may listen to this conversation in its entirety here.

Lori Walsh:          It was a keystone of federal Indian policy in the early 1900s. The Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum housed approximately 400 Native inmates from across the US during its three decades of operation. More than half of those residents died of curable diseases. 

Anne Dilenschneider and Jerry Fogg are South Dakota Humanities Counsel scholars and keepers of the Canton Native Asylum story. We have some upcoming events to talk to you about and Anne, welcome back to "In the Moment". Thank you for returning.

Ann Dilsenschneider.:    Thanks Lori.

Lori Walsh:          Jerry Fogg, thanks for being here as well. We appreciate your time.

Jerry Fogg:            It's an honor.

Lori Walsh:          I feel like we should give an overview. Before we talk about the events that are coming up, we should give an overview of what exactly this facility was. Jerry, do you wanna start with a brief history lesson for our listeners?

Jerry Fogg:            Well, to get started, it did close down in 1933 and the only result of that was leaving behind 121-plus Native American souls that I feel like I am very much a part of, being Native American. And the keepers of the story have gotten together and felt that it is a purpose, a very strong purpose, to honor these Native Americans who were left behind. It is that they are very, very far from home. I mean, these Native Americans come from all over the United States and they were brought here in a suffering way. Taken away and torn away from their family and relative's homes and it was just misunderstood about the whole situation that happened at that time.

But they were put there and we are here to honor them, and have to always remember who they are and where they came from.

Lori Walsh:          Anne, the title "insane asylum" is a misnomer. No one there was insane. This is not a mental health facility. Explain to me how it operated as a punishment. Who was sent there?

Ann D.:                    Well, they called it an insane asylum although it was Pettigrew who said that there would be increasing levels of insanity as Native Americans had children with the white settlers. And know, he did acknowledge that there was no insanity or even a word for insanity among the native people, so it makes us all wonder where the insanity came from. But it really was used because they needed to figure out a way to deal with punishing people who were in jails on the reservations or in the boarding schools, because Native Americans unfortunately were wards of the federal government and there was no federal facility. So this became a federal facility.

We've actually met elders who've said, as children in boarding school, they were threatened with being sent to Canton, and everybody knew it was a death sentence.

When it was finally closed, most of the people that were sent to St. Elizabeth's at the end, there were a few that were genuinely sick with epilepsy and things like that, that had been mistaken as insanity. But there was a woman sent there who had four children in four years and they said, "Well, she showed no self-control." So she was sent there. People were sent there because they angered a reservation agent or had gotten into a fight.

Many reasons, most of them not very good, most of them fairly political. And then there was no medical staff, really. Nothing was treated, so people died of syphilis, they died of tuberculosis and those were diseases at the time, that could be controlled. So when the federal investigations happened, the investigators were horrified, but nobody could come up with a solution because now they had created this terrible environment, people in terrible condition and on a lot of medications that made them very ill.

Not to mention the fact that most of these people didn't speak English and so you are treating people you can't even talk to. It was a very bad confluence of things, mostly political, that came together. And then, because it brought in a lot of money as well as tourist dollars, there were powers that did not want it closed, and yet staff wanted it closed, and obviously Native families wanted it closed and wanted their family members out of there.

Lori Walsh:          Jerry, you mentioned people left behind. It's a burial site, it's a cemetery. What's there now? Are there indications, when people visit, that they can what this place once was?

Jerry Fogg:            Well, right now if you enter it there, it's just a wooden, old, old fence, log-style, that surrounds the cemetery in a kind of a rectangular format. They do have a memorial plaque there, that is the only thing that shows that anything is really, actually in there. Right now we're in the purpose of trying to label and show that these people do exist there, and building a fence around it would be a good purpose to enforce what is there among the prairie land. 

We are just trying to do our best to accommodate these that are buried there and show respect for their souls that are probably still there, as far as being a person buried in a cemetery.

Ann D.:                    And it's between the fourth and fifth fairways of the golf course, and the golf course has been very respectful in dealing with that area. It became a golf course in the '40s because of the land is federal land and it could only be used for public use, and that was one use that apparently in the '40s they came up with. There's lots of rules about not playing from there, but on the other hand, it is a cemetery and there are people buried there who need respect.

Lori Walsh:          Let's talk about some of the upcoming events. There will be a lecture on June 6th at First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, about Healing our Shared Past, Present and Future. That's at 7 PM central time. And then there's the annual honoring at the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum site. That's June 9th from 2 to 5 PM. Jerry, give us an idea of what that annual honoring looks like.

Jerry Fogg:            Well, starting at 2:00, if people are interested, they should start showing up a little earlier because right at 2:00 we have the Sacred Horse Society ride. These are riders on horses that have honored many, many different aspects among the Native American people across the state. They are also part of the Dakota 38th and ride to Mankato for that purpose.

We are honoring, at the cemetery we have a holy man who comes forth and blesses such and such, as we do in our traditions and everything else. And then following that we have potluck meal, right on the grounds there, just several yards away. It will go on rather rain or shine, and it is free to the public. We are asking if people would bring a little potluck to help us out with things.

But it is a very special thing to us and I'm sure it is very, very special to those that are buried there.

Ann D.:                    It's pretty amazing too, people really have come from all over the world. Last year there were researchers from England, from the United Kingdom and they actually had digitized a lot of the documents and so we now have thousands of documents, that we are still gathering more, but eventually those documents will go to all the tribes and will go to the Historical Societies so that people don't have to go to Washington or Kansas City or Fort Worth or wherever, to get information about their families.

We never know who's going to show up. We've had family members show up, of people who were there, and we learn more every time. John Eagle, who's one of the wonderful people we've had the privilege to work with said, I think it was last year or the year before, Jerry, he said, "You know, these people suffered here but they did not suffer and die in vain because they have called us all together now." 

And so that whole idea of how do we come together now to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and these things don't happen again, it's a big piece of what we're about. I just love that, that the whole idea of this really is a time to come together, to tell stories and to move forward and learn more about each other, so we don't make these mistakes.

Lori Walsh:          If you're just tuning in, my guests are Anne Dilenschneider and Jerry Fogg. They're both South Dakota Humanities Counsel Scholars who do lectures on this topic and also keepers of the story. Jerry tell me a little bit about how you became one of the keepers of the Canton Native American Asylum story?

Jerry Fogg:            Well, I was sitting at home. I had a person talk to me about being Yankton Sioux. We were involved in it from earlier times and a group of people got together in Sioux Falls and was discussing about the feelings that they had towards this were very strong. Among the meeting, I believe they said, "Well, we should have a Native American involved in our ongoing procedures." So I guess they searched around and found me on Facebook and contacted me and asked if I was interested, and my heart just jumped up and said, "Oh, I'm so honored to be part of that, and come forward."

I believe that one of our biggest problems which we are solving today, is that when this place did close, they put a 70 year gag order on it, to where no one could talk about it, or information was not available. Well, in the early 2000s that time had passed and in any situation, when that time comes to where it's available, you make use of it. This situation, I believe it is very important to make use of the information that is there in honoring these people.

Ann D.:                    Jerry's being very modest. I know that part of the way he was found was through his art. Jerry's art has traveled to stay with the Governor's Biennial Exhibit and other things. I think it was because people had known of his art and his interest in history, because his art is so much about making history visible, inviting us into the story. Because he's so good at that, I think he was one of the first people people thought of that said must, must be part of this.

Lori Walsh:          Right. It seemed like a very natural fit. Why isn't he already a part of it, right? It goes together.

Ann D.:                    Exactly. And he's gone on to do some amazing pieces related to the asylum, as well as other things.

Lori Walsh:          Let's talk a little bit about this, and Anne let's start with you. It's a tourist attraction, and why? What is the attraction at that point, when it's open? I mean, people actually come to see people chained up? What was happening there?

Ann D.:                    It was advertised as far away as Chicago and St. Louis, to come see the crazy Indians, and they would actually do a narrative on the train. We have actually, and that's part of what we'll talk about, a description of what they would say as they drove by on the train. They would explain how this was a state-of-the-art place, and the Native Americans were being given everything wonderful, while that wasn't happening. I mean, the hospital was empty. They had a microscope in it, that's it. There was no surgical equipment, nothing. It was used to house coal.

They were not fed, they were chained to the beds. The toilets, they had state-of-the-art plumbing, wasn't used. They just had chamber pots and chained to the beds, and in South Dakota summer heat, the windows closed and barred. So you can imagine. And then the coal dust everywhere, it was a nightmare. 

But the downstairs rooms apparently were kept, although with no furniture, eyewitnesses have told us, fairly clean, just Native Americans sitting. Harry Hummer who was the superintendent had a couple days a week you could come and visit, and you could buy your souvenir spoon or your souvenir teacup and plate or some dolls that were made there. Postcards, there are postcards all over that we're able to find, so you could prove that you had been there and seen the crazy Indians.

It brought in a fair amount of money. And remember, this is during The Depression and the Dust Bowl, both of which hit South Dakota harder even than Oklahoma, though we forget about that. So the very desperate financial time, so that this, a lot of federal money is coming into the asylum to keep it open which then, of course, goes into the community. And then of course, you've got the tourist dollars. So it was a very lucrative place.

Lori Walsh:          Jerry, tell me a little bit about the heroic actions of some of the employees who, during this really difficult economic time are willing to step forward and speak up.

Jerry Fogg:            Well, that is basically kind of a part of Anne's presentation, but from what I've learned watching that, the nurses that were there, they'd seen what was going on. The elderly ... or not elderly but orderly nurses and stuff, and they thought, "No, this is wrong. This should not happen." So they tried their best to discourage this action going on and contact people that have authority to make decisions. And even at the balance of losing their jobs, which like Anne said, in The Depression times, you were very lucky to hold a job. And they were under scrutiny of losing their jobs but they still came forward and tried to end this atrocity that was happening to the Native American people.

Ann D.:                    Yeah, there weren't even any nurses until 1928 and the nurses Jerry's talking about, Grace Fillius and Doretta both piped up and filed complaints with Washington as had other staff before them. There were complaints from the time the place opened, that staff had complained. Every time staff complained, they knew they would lose their jobs. And then when Grace and Doretta were fired, two of the men, Louis Larson and Robert Stengel, both of whom ... Manfred Hill who is still alive and one of the eyewitnesses we have met, said they were both fine, upstanding young men. They supported the nurses and they too lost their jobs.

When staff keeps losing jobs, what happens is you have a terribly understaffed place that wasn't even good in the first place. But they were willing to do that, and we're really hoping to find relatives of people who were on staff who can help us learn why they had the courage to speak up and lose their jobs. Because Native Americans were writing letters, advocating with Washington, speaking up. Some of the stories are just amazing, what people did to try to get help and at the same time, from the inside, there were staff also helping. We wanna be able to tell both sides of that story.

Lori Walsh:          Here are the things you can participate in coming up. Healing Our Shared Past, Present and Future, the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum of Canton, South Dakota. See the presentation on June 6th, that's at First United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, starts at 7 PM, and then the annual honoring at the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum site. That's June 9th. Get there a little before 2:00 for the Dakota Riders to lead the way through Canton, and bring something for the potluck.

Lori Walsh:          Anne Dilenschneider, Jerry Fogg, keepers of the story and Humanities Scholars. Thank you so much for being here again with us and sharing this story.

Ann D.:                    Thank you Lori, and let people know the South Dakota Humanities Counsel will bring us anywhere in the state.

Lori Walsh:          Excellent.

Jerry Fogg:            Thank you very much.

Lori Walsh:          Thank you so much. That's our show for today.


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