Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond Institutions

Guest blog post by Susan Burch, author of Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond Institutions

“It is said to be the only institution of its kind,” announced the New York Daily Tribune, lauding the opening of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians in South Dakota in 1902. The appreciation of its exceptionality that the Tribune expressed to its readers was not shared by the Native people locked within the Asylum and their kin on the outside. 

Institutionalization played a profound role in the lives of many Native people long before this federal psychiatric facility opened. As is fundamental to all systems for managing people, its operations were fed by other institutions and its influence continued long past its brick-and-mortar existence. Canton Asylum was simply another way to incarcerate people who had already experienced—either in person or vicariously through a family member—detention in a boarding school, a jail, a local psychiatric facility. 

For the last century, the primary stories told about Canton have centered the white people who created, managed, and staffed the institution. Exceptionalism defines these accounts. In them, the Indian Asylum emerges as a remarkable achievement of medicine and psychiatry. 

Disease outbreaks, high mortality, staff abuses, filthy conditions, and tyrannical management appear as unfortunate and isolated occurrences. Those were problems impacting individual people and caused by individual people. 

What’s missing, despite being the reason for its founding and the core of its activities,—what should be at the forefront and should always have been at the forefront of remembrance and study—is the actual “care” experience of the Indigenous peoples incarcerated in such facilities. For decades, Lakota journalist Harold Iron Shield called attention to Canton Asylum’s cemetery and the degrading presence of the golf course surrounding it. Others before and since have investigated mass graves at settler boarding schools, orphanages, and reformatories. Indigenous activists, scholars, and everyday people have insisted on remembering histories that have otherwise long been distorted and buried.

Remembering—repopulating the past—changes how we understand institutionalization, then and now. Centering Native people’s lived experiences generates stories of kinship, refusals, adaptations, loss, and continuance. Institutional interventions are familiar and acceptable because it is usually explained by those who benefit from or were trained in its logic. Yet dispossessing people from their land, families, and memories in the name of education, civilization, assimilation is destruction, not care. Canton Asylum was but one part of a vast network of settler institutions in which Indigenous people were trapped.

In December 1933, newspapers across America celebrated and derided the closing of “the only institution of its kind.” 

That’s far from the end of the story.

After decades of damage to forcibly detained Native people and their families and irrefutable exposures of the abuse, the solution was no better than in 1902. Sixty-nine people were loaded onto Pullman train cars and transported to another federal psychiatric facility: St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, DC. Over the next twenty years, many from this institutionalized group would be shuttled between other facilities, including Narcotic Prison Farm-Hospitals in Fort Worth, Texas, and Lexington, Kentucky. The few who outlived those detentions were eventually returned to St. Elizabeths. Painful and unresolved histories such as this can only be accurately told when historians and community members work shoulder to shoulder, pen to pen, to not just restore the past but use it as a regenerative methodology.

Susan Burch is professor of American studies at Middlebury College.