The Canton Asylum For Insane Indians committed Native Americans from around the country until the early 1930’s. A Vermont author is collecting stories from indigenous nations and families for a book on the history of institutionalization for Native people.
Susan Burch has been conducting research for her book ‘Committed’ for about 11 years. It hasn’t been easy. She says records of the people committed between 1902 and 1934 weren’t well kept.
“But it means we don’t fully know how many people were detained there. My best guess and what other scholars have come up with is that about 53 indigenous nations and nearly 400 people-children, adults, elders-were detained at Canton Asylum.”
Some stories in the book are from families in South Dakota. Burch says many people from the asylum ended up in other institutions of the time, like boarding schools and orphanages-all meant to dismantle indigenous lifeways.
She says there are many different systems of medicine, and what’s defined as a problem can vary among cultures.
“Western bio medicine often projects itself as objective-as a capital T kind of truth. And it locates a problem inside an individual body mine and casts that person as having a problem or being a problem.”
Burch says that history of institutionalization ties into modern day issues. For example, Native people are incarcerated and targeted for violent and sexual crimes at high rates.
“The ramifications of institutionalization is never born only by the people who are labeled. But their kin at the time and generations since are affected by those actions, what happened to these individuals because they were never just case files. They were cousins and aunties and mothers and daughters and grandparents.”
She says one of her biggest takeaways from listening to stories from family members is that their relatives were institutionalized at Canton because they were indigenous. Burch’s book Committed is scheduled for release in 2021.