How U.S. government created an ‘insane asylum’ to imprison Native Americans

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In the late 1800s, two South Dakota congressmen were looking for ways to build an economy in their newly minted state – one that was carved out of Indigenous homelands. They decided on a psychiatric institution for Native Americans. It would become the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians – a place where Native people from across the country would be forcibly committed and imprisoned, often for reasons that had nothing to do with having a mental illness. From 1903 to 1933, when it closed after a short, but brutal, existence, more than 350 Native people had been held, and at least 121 people had died, in the facility.

This is the first part of a two-part series about how disability has been and continues to be used as a way to control and profit from Native populations. In the next episode, we’ll learn about how state courts today use disability as a reason to justify removing Native children from their parents’ custody and cultural environment to place them in non-Native homes.


exterior of a large building in the early 1900s

The Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians (pictured), which opened for business in 1903, was the first and only federally funded psychiatric institution for American Indians in the U.S. After it was closed in 1933, it was torn down and a golf course was built in its place. A cemetery of 121 men, women and children who died at the asylum is located near the fifth hole. (Photo from the South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota Digital Archives, 2009-07-02-012)

In 1913, a Lakota man from the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota was accused of stealing horses. He insisted that he didn’t do it, but he was arrested anyway and was then given the bizarre diagnosis of having “horse-stealing mania.”

[Music: “Midday” by Blue Dot Sessions]

The Lakota man’s story was first written about by David Walker, a Missouri Cherokee psychologist and researcher, who gave him the pseudonym Alvin Abner Big Man.

Alvin refused to plead guilty to stealing horses, and because of his supposed erratic behavior in jail, he was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a federally funded psychiatric institution in Washington, D.C.

Ella Callow is the director of the Office of Disability Access and Compliance at UC Berkeley and she’s a board member of the Friendship House Association of American Indians in Oakland.

Ella Callow: At that time, the only federal psychiatric institution was St. Elizabeth’s. So, if they did have someone who was determined to have a psychiatric disability or psychiatric involvement who was Native American, because Native people were under the jurisdiction of the federal government, they would be sent to St. Elizabeth’s.


Portrait of Ella Callow

Ella Callow, director of the Office of Disability Access and Compliance at UC Berkeley, is writing an article about how disability has been and continues to be used as a way to profit from and control Native populations. (Photo courtesy of Ella Callow)

Callow, who graduated from Berkeley Law in 2001 and was part of the Native American Law Students Association, is writing an article about how disability has been and continues to be used as a way to profit from and control Native populations.

Ella Callow: My family comes out of Indian country and, you know, for us, it’s always kind of like, it’s always a money grab. They’re always trying to make money off of Indians. That’s what it always is. It’s take the land, take the water, get whatever you can get. And just one more thing that can be gotten is bodies – literal bodies that people make money off of. You label them, you call them something, put them somewhere, and you can make money from them.

Every time Indigenous people get taken off their land, removed from their community and put away, there is a chance that that’s one less person making it back, having a family who will have treaty rights they can enforce, who will have descendants who have treaty rights they can enforce, who can hold the government to its obligations to Native people.

She says Alvin could have been removed from his community and sent away for any number of reasons, as were thousands of other Native people at that time.

Ella Callow: So, you know, people who were too outspoken, people who refused to be compliant, young people probably who were acting out or rebelling. Now, what was he really sent for? Who knows? Maybe he had a beef with the reservation agent.

The reservation agent – the person who determined that Alvin had horse-stealing mania – wasn’t a mental health professional or even Native, says Callow.

As were all reservation agents, he was a white man installed at the reservation by the government. He had total control over the people who lived there. On a whim, he could lock away anyone, many of whom would never be seen again.

Doctors at St. Elizabeth’s gave Alvin a clean bill of health, saying he was “uniformly good and free from any gross disorder.” But they still agreed to hold him temporarily because of his unfamiliar – and unusual – diagnosis.

[Music: “Margerie” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Three years later, Alvin was transferred to the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians in Canton, South Dakota, where he would spend the next two years fighting for his freedom.

This is Fiat Vox, a Berkeley News podcast. I’m Anne Brice.

The Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians opened for business in 1903. It was the first and only federally funded mental institution for American Indians in the U.S.

The asylum was started by two South Dakota congressmen who hoped that the institution would attract settlers, create jobs and build an economy in their new state, which was carved out of Indigenous homelands.

It came at a time when laws prohibited Native Americans from practicing their own spirituality and allowed for their children to be kidnapped and sent sometimes thousands of miles away to Christian boarding schools, where authorities would force them to assimilate to white ways and attempt to “beat the Indian” out of them.

Ella Callow: What’s really interesting to me is that, at that time, with everything they’d been through, Native people probably desperately could’ve used, you know, good support. But that support would have been in the form of human rights and civil rights and actually having their treaties honored so that their own people could conduct ceremonies and help them be well. But instead, what they got was these guys going around to get a psych institution built in the middle of the prairie.

[Music: “Watercool Quiet” by Blue Dot Sessions]

When Alvin was transferred to the Hiawatha asylum in 1916, he was one of many inmates who were imprisoned for reasons that had nothing to do with mental illness. Some were there because they had epilepsy or a physical deformity from an injury. Others were there for having a disagreement with a schoolmate or spouse, or because they refused to give up their way of life. Many were under the age of 30, and several were children.

Callow says that by labeling these Native people as disabled, the government justified that they shouldn’t be allowed to pass their genes to a next generation.

Ella Callow: This is the eugenics era. So, what happened was that people with disabilities, more and more, were swept away and out of the world and into institutions and disappeared, and disappeared from the human family by preventing them from having children.

And in the same way, it’s very parallel to what they were doing to Indians. You know, we’re going to end these people as people, you know – they will be Indians, perhaps racially, but we are going to create white people out of these children, and they will die as Indians.

At the Hiawatha asylum, institutional policy required that these “defectives” be sexually sterilized before being discharged from the facility. But the superintendent, psychiatrist Harry Hummer, didn’t know how to perform the procedure, so instead, inmates were often held there until they died, usually of untreated disease or severe abuse and neglect.

By the time Alvin got to the Hiawatha asylum, there had already been at least one formal complaint signed by more than a dozen employees against Dr. Hummer alleging the mistreatment of patients and inhumane conditions.

Remarkably, Alvin was one of the few who made it out alive.

After two years of fighting against Dr. Hummer about the treatment of his fellow inmates and pleading to be released, even attempting to smuggle out a note to the Indian commissioners about the horrendous ways people were being treated, Alvin was discharged after five years of incarceration.

In 1933, after numerous investigations, the institution was finally closed by John Collier, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs in the Roosevelt administration. In response, residents of Canton waged a federal court battle to keep the asylum open, as it was a major contributor to the city’s economy during the country’s Great Depression.

Those at the asylum who were deemed mentally sound were released, and those who weren’t were transferred to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital.

[Music: “Taoudella” by Blue Dot Sessions]

During the some 30 years the asylum was open, it housed more than 350 Native Americans from tribes throughout North America.

The Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians was torn down and, in its place, a municipal golf course was built. A cemetery of 121 Native men, women, children and newborns who died at the asylum is located near the fifth hole in a “no play” zone.

For Berkeley News, I’m Anne Brice.

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