The Canton Indian Insane Asylum, also known as the Hiawatha Insane Asylum, was located in Canton, South Dakota. Photo: Robert Bogdan Collection

The nation's only insane asylum for Indians was in South Dakota

Asylum for Insane Indians
By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

PIERRE – A fall exhibit in Sioux Falls has opened up in Mitchell and a public forum scheduled to be held in Rapid City both tell the story of the nation’s only Native American asylum housed in southeastern South Dakota.

Closed in 1934, the Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota, officially opened its doors to patients in January, 1903 with the first patient being admitted on December 31, 1902. This was a 33-year old man from the Santee Sioux Reservation in Nebraska. The asylum was created in 1899 by the U.S. Congress, during a period in which traditional religious practices had been deemed illegal, indigenous nations were being confined by force to reservation living, tribal members were adjusting to the colonial policies which changed diet, culture and traditional ways of living.

This same period is known for its policy of forcing Indians into mission boarding schools. This was the end of the Indian Wars and American was scrambling to deal with the “Indian problem." This asylum was a continuation to the devastation and dark period in American history, which it would just as soon forget.

During this first year of being open, the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians, as it is also known as, housed sixteen patients; 10 men, 6 women. One of these men died during this first year. Escapes throughout the 30+ years of existence happened often and more often than officially documented. One such escape was documented in a local newspaper, Sioux Valley News, on July 7, 1905.

The author of the article states, “The naked fugitive ran toward shelter, home, and sanity. Five men pursued him, one armed with a shotgun and one with a revolver. They scrabbled over miles of rough terrain, determined to bring the man back to the facility where he had been dragged against his will.”

A placard lists the names of those who died at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in South Dakota. At least 121 died at the facility, according to research by Elizabeth Stawicki. Photo: On Being

Violence against the patients at the asylum was the accepted norm. One such story was told by a patient, Leda Williamson, during following her stay in the asylum. One evening in 1930, Williamson had refused to be moved from one area to another and the Attendant, Ada DeCory, had requested that her husband, Benjamin (also an employee at the asylum), help get Williamson moved.

According to her statement, she was thrown to the ground and kicked several times before picking her up and shoving her into a bench which broke against impact. Four witnesses corroborated her story. The DeCory’s were former employees of the Rapid City Indian School before being employed in Canton.

Nearly 400 Indian men and women were sent to the asylum for various reasons; many of which had anything to do with any mental illness or extreme behavioral problem. Often times, when these tribal members were unable to make the adjustments to American life, they were deemed by troublemakers by Indian agents, continued practicing their traditional ceremonies, or simply for being uncooperative to authorities.

In 1899, South Dakota was a struggling state searching for an identity. The Indian Wars were ending and settlement was continuing to invade traditional homelands of tribal nations. A bill was signed into law and $75,000 was appropriated for the asylum in Canton. This was in part due Canton’s Chamber of Commerce approaching congress with the bill to house Indians who were making settlement difficult in their area.

The Chamber of Commerce had seen a cash cow and set about keeping the large grant funds within the community and hired local staff, builders and administrators to begin the project. Attorney Oscar S. Gifford was the first superintendent in 1901 who hired physician, Dr. John F. Turner as his assistant. Neither man had a background in psychiatric care.

As many of the patients had been unable to speak English, this helped in consideration of their diagnoses by Dr. Turner; that along with the virtual stealing of these individuals from their tribal territories from around the nation created emotions and feelings of loneliness, discomfort, agitation and disengagement. Turner saw these behaviors and attributed them to a particular diagnosis in many cases.

Although others were sent there due to physical illnesses such as epilepsy, tuberculosis, being senile, or had deformities that were either congenital or injury related. Some were simply sent to Canton for arguing with the Indian agent on their reservation, a school teacher, or in some cases for refusing to have their children taken and sent to an Indian boarding school.

Canton was not designed to take care of the mentally ill. It was more used to incarcerate individuals who refused to conform to the strict laws of a foreign government system which labeled them mentally ill in order to confine, constrict and keep them from influencing others to do the same. Their emotional reaction was deemed insane, in some cases.

On September 24, the Mitchell Dakota Discovery Museum opened up a fall exhibit to provide information regarding the asylum and on Sunday, October 7, a “Learning Forum about the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum” will take place at the Journey Museum in Rapid City. South Dakota Humanities Council Scholars, Jerry Frog and Anne Dilenschneider will be on hand to give a discussion about the asylum and its mistreatment of Indians in the early 20th century.


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