History Of The Hiawatha Asylum

May 7, 2013

Sioux Falls Argus Leader reporter Steve Young talks about the history of the Hiawatha Asylum. The institute near Canton receive its first patient in December 1902. Over the next 31 years, the asylum housed hundreds of Native Americans from across the country. In its lifetime, the asylum had two superintendents. The first, a former Canton mayor and U.S. congressman, O.S. Gifford, had no medical training and preferred hiring local residents over the best civil servants, even though the locals lacked experience in dealing with mental illness. Gifford was removed in summer 1908, and Dr. Harry R. Hummer was appointed to replace him. Hummer relied on nine diagnoses - dementia praecox, epilepsies, congenital imbecility, intoxication psychoses, manic-depressive insanity, senile psychoses, arterio-sclerotic dementia, hysteria and paranoia - as justifications for keeping patients at the asylum. Though many of them did not apply, the reality nonetheless under Hummer was that those sent to Canton seldom left the facility except through death. Hummer's idea of treatment was proper hygiene and diet, adequate sleep and a combination of sedatives, tonics and outdoor activity. But more often, patients were locked into rooms so attendants could eat or do other things. Their movement was restricted with straitjackets. Many were handcuffed to pipes and bedposts. Some of the women were sexually abused by male staff or other residents. The grounds of the Hiawatha Asylum are now the Hiawatha Golf Course in Canton. More than 120 asylum residents are buried in a cemetery between the fourth and fifth fairways. A healing and prayer ceremony honoring Native Americans who died at the Hiawatha Asylum will begin at noon on May 19th.