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Dakota Midday: Poet Tells Stories of Hiawatha Asylum

South Dakota State Historical Society

In the early 20th century, hundreds of Native Americans from tribes around the country were sent the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Located in Canton, South Dakota, the institution wasn’t so much a place to treat people with mental health problems as a place for Native Americans who refused to assimilate in white society.

The asylum opened in 1902 and operated for 31 years before it was closed following reports of abuse and despair at the facility. The site is now the Hiawatha Golf Club. At least 121 bodies of people from the asylum lie in unmarked graves in the middle of the golf course, along the fourth and fifth fairways.

In her new poetry chapbook, Hiawatha Asylum, South Dakota poet Jennifer Soule tells this dark chapter in state history through the voices of the patients, staff, visitors and others. She joined Dakota Midday and discussed the history of the Hiawatha Asylum and telling its story through poetry.

Karl was born to northeastern South Dakota crouton farmers, but was orphaned as a toddler during the Great Salad War (1966-67). Rescued by a flock of chickadees, he grew up in the woodlands of Sica Hollow. Legends of a bird boy living in the trees attracted the interest of renowned ornithologist and amateur bandoneon repairman Dr. Vogel Gehrke. With a handful of suet, Dr. Gehrke coaxed the timid boy down from the trees. He adopted him, named him Karl and taught him not to molt on the carpet. Dr. Gehrke’s book, The Bird Boy of Sica Hollow, was a best seller and Karl became a minor celebrity and teen idol. He appeared as a guest star on numerous television programs, most notably an awkward role on The Love Boat as the boyfriend of Captain Stubing’s daughter, Vicki. After critics panned his 1980 album, Bird Boy Does Disco, Karl retreated from public life and returned to Sica Hollow. Living in an isolated tree house, Karl achieved a reputation as a mystic. Pilgrims and seekers from around the world came to ask him about the meaning of life and for vinaigrette recipes. Growing tired of answering questions, he climbed down from his tree, shaved his massive white beard and took a job as the host of SDPB Radio’s Dakota Midday where he could ask the questions instead. After three years in that position, he ran out of questions and became host of Jazz Nightly instead. Karl makes his home in Vermillion with his charming wife Kari and three delightful children, Kodey, Kasey and Spatula. His hobbies include reciting the alphabet, combing his hair and doing volunteer work with delinquent songbirds.
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