Carla Joinson is an independent scholar based in Church Hill, Tennessee. Published in 2016 by the University at Nebraska Press, Joinson’s Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians examines the rise and fall of this Federal institution designed to incarcerate ‘insane’ Indigenous peoples. Her institutional history draws on extensive archival material to narrate the story of this unusual facility, magnifying the various social, political, and economic machinations that underpinned its operation from 1902 to 1934. Joinson responded to the following questions via email during late August 2022.
1, What led you to pursue an extensive study of the Canton Asylum?1 Why were you compelled to research its history?
I was at loose ends searching for a writing project at the time, and something (I think a book I was reading) piqued my interest in insanity and institutional care. As I researched asylums for background, I came across a few scattered references to the Canton Asylum. At first, I thought the idea of an asylum just for Native Americans was so bizarre, that the place had to be fictional, but when I realized that it had actually existed, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.
2, Despite the singularity of Canton Asylum as being the only institution to ‘treat’ Indigenous peoples exclusively, it has taken quite some time for scholars to investigate its long, controversial history. There doesn’t appear to be any in-depth historical studies of the asylum predating the mid-1980s.2 Fifty years elapsed between the closing of Canton and the emergence of academic studies of its history. What accounts for this belated scholarly attention?
Probably a couple of things. Mental healthcare by and large stayed under the public’s radar before deinstitutionalization began in the 1960s, and probably under the academic radar as well. A number of scholars wrote about insanity early on—its treatment and institutional care in broad terms—but individual asylums were seldom examined. The topic seems to have been more of a sociological examination than anything else. I believe a trend in historical research to consider micro-stories has changed the study of asylums and many other historical subjects. By this I mean that researchers are now willing to focus on smaller pieces of a topic; instead of examining an entire war, or even an entire battle, historians may decide to focus on one company or one soldier. This openness to smaller stories allows for the acceptance of a book on one asylum rather than asylums as a whole.
3, Methodologically, Vanished in Hiawatha might be best understood as an institutional history. Why did you choose this particular approach? What are the advantages of institutional histories? What are the drawbacks?
Institutional histories allow writers to cover any and all aspects of the institution that interest them. I could cover staff and patients, treatments, the politics that affected it, prejudices of the time, etc. I mentioned in the “Afterthoughts” that I believed writers with different interests would all write very different books about this asylum, and that freedom is certainly one of the advantages of an institutional history. And of course, you can do a more thorough job of examining one institution versus ten or twenty. Institutional histories, however, have a couple of drawbacks that immediately come to mind. First, you might be tantalized with a bit of information concerning the institution and then find that very little material actually exists to research. Even with the wealth of material that had been preserved in the National Archives concerning Canton Asylum, I still found it difficult to dig out enough other material to round out the narrative and give a fairly complete picture of the place. Second, a researcher is forced to exclude a great deal of interesting/enlightening material because it won’t fit into the boundaries dictated by the rather narrow confines of one institution.
4, Especially intriguing is your sustained interest in the biographies of the asylum’s two superintendents, Oscar S. Gifford (1902–1908) and his successor, Dr. Harry Reid Hummer (1908–1932). You neither psychologize nor psychoanalyze these men, but dissect their personalities, temperaments, and private ambitions, which, in an important way, humanizes them. In other words, these men are not flat historic abstractions or simply cast as contemptible villains. Why did you devote substantial portions of your book to limning the characters of these superintendents? Why are biographical contexts important and what can they achieve?
Though my book is scholarly enough to (I hope) be taken seriously, my real audience was the nonacademic reader who was simply interested in what I considered a very interesting topic. I very much needed to personalize the narrative and help readers step into the everyday lives and problems played out at the asylum by ordinary people. I wanted the book to read as compellingly as a work of fiction, so character was important. When I first began my research, I only had snippets of information about Canton. I was predisposed to consider Dr. Hummer a villain, Mr. Gifford incompetent and callous, and so on. Once I dug into the era and understood more about its mindset, its medical limitations and the common practices at other institutions, and knew a little more about the key players, I could see that everything involved in the Canton Asylum story held a mixture of good and bad, the admirable and not so admirable. I didn’t want to push an agenda in any way, and found that when I could step back and look at these people and their actions in the context of their society and era, they acted much more understandably than I had first thought. It’s not that I admired Dr. Hummer, for instance, but after rounding him out I could see that he also wasn’t evil incarnate, either. I aimed for balance more than anything.
5, Archival research can be challenging, and researchers often encounter unexpected difficulties, such as limited access to primary materials, logistical issues, funding restraints, and missing voices and gaps in the historical record that frustrate efforts to tell a comprehensive, linear narrative. Describe some of the unanticipated obstacles you encountered as you worked within different archives and special collections during your research. How did you overcome these challenges?
I don’t believe I could have written this book in the time before the internet. The National Archives held great material, but I would never have known about some of the other sources I found if I hadn’t had the luxury of doing searches that pulled up both specific items I needed to know about as well as tidbits I wasn’t specifically looking for—articles in obscure journals and newspapers, or a mention of a name that I could follow up easily with subsequent searches. I didn’t have unlimited time or money, of course. I worked on and off on this book for 7–8 years, between other writing. I lived in the Washington, DC, area at the time, and going to the National Archives meant only a couple of dollars and a Metro ride; I spent days there on several different occasions as I got a better handle on the material I needed to see. I couldn’t have afforded the travel and hotels if I hadn’t lived in the area. My greatest frustration was finding suitable pictures, which I felt were important for readers. I could never find an interior shot of the asylum, though surely some exist. I also found very few patient narratives, and had to do the best I could with the few that I did find. I was grateful when a representative of the Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story contacted me. They were able to show me material they had, and were gracious guides when I went to South Dakota for a final research trip. There is a point when a researcher simply has to stop the research and start writing the story. Of course, I was writing as I went along, but I found new material up to the last minute and I know other material has come out since the book was published. Hopefully someone else will continue the narrative; it will be interesting to see what a future writer decides to include.
6, In the “Afterthoughts” chapter, you write: “Some readers may say that the history of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians is a Native American story, which only a Native American can tell. I disagree, believing instead that it is a societal story that reveals much about the culture and time in which it occurred” (273). I’m reminded of Werner Sollors’ Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (1986) in which he notes the impasse of “biological insiderism” in the context of ethnic literature: “Taken to its [biological insiderism] radical conclusion, such a position really assumes there is no shared history and no human empathy, that you have your history and I have mine. . . .” (Sollors 13). Why do you articulate your stance on this issue of insiderism? Are you responding to criticism encountered during your research?
I didn’t encounter criticism, but I thought I might. The first bits of information I had seen on the internet about the asylum had been mostly generated by Indigenous peoples, and I thought that perhaps they would see yet another intrusion by a non-Indigenous individual into this very painful story. I certainly didn’t want to offend anyone, and I really believe that a good researcher/writer can do any topic justice. I wanted to make it clear that I was writing from my own particular interests and that there was plenty of room for other perspectives and focuses.
7, From a historiography perspective, other scholars have researched the Canton Asylum using different methodologies.3 Given this growing body of scholarship, what remains to be researched about the Canton Asylum? What other areas or aspects of the asylum’s history need to be uncovered and examined?
I believe that at one time, someone was working on writing short biographies of each patient. I think that would be monumentally important as a legacy to patients’ descendants. I don’t know where that project stands, but it would bring healing and closure to the people who were so powerless at the time. I also think it would be interesting to get a more intimate view of life at the asylum from both staff and patient perspectives. The material to do that might not exist, of course. It might also be interesting to compare the Canton Asylum to others in the West at the time, and/or to the more sophisticated (presumably) asylums in the East.
8, Vanished in Hiawatha appeals to many different readers—local historians, historians of medicine, political scientists, and disability and Indigenous studies scholars. Aside from historians and others, what do you want your research to convey to today’s medical students and practicing physicians? What lessons of patient care and medical practice can be discerned in your telling of the Canton Asylum narrative?
There is such a fine line between doing what is best for someone with mental health issues and abusing their rights and dignity. I would want medical personnel to try to understand the cultural and societal issues that might play into their patients’ behavior. Really understanding the patient as a person is so important. Because of my own experience in a nursing home, I understand a bit about what it’s like to work with institutionalized people and how easy it is to do what is convenient rather than what is best or kindest. The patients who did get their stories out showed that they responded to attention and genuine concern, and I would urge physicians to remember that patients can’t be treated like a case or a number. Finding the money to give good care is the big obstacle, of course, and perhaps administrators could tap into philanthropic sources for the extras these patients and institutions need.
9, You published this fascinating monograph in 2016. Since then, what have you researched? What are some of your recently completed or ongoing projects?
I continue to be interested in the history of asylums and the treatment of patients in them. I wanted to write a history of asylums in the United States, which hasn’t yet been explored to my knowledge. I found little interest from publishers, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped most in-person research. I have since decided to do a self-published series that particularly looks at patients. I published the first in this series, Little Lunatics: Children in America’s Madhouses (1850–1930) which I believe is the only book ever to focus specifically on child patients. Other books in the series will include female and male patients, the criminally insane, Black patients, and perhaps others. These books are, and will be, much shorter than the Canton Asylum book and hopefully will appeal to both academics and the public.
Bhatara, VS, S Gupta, and M Brokenleg. “The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians: The First Federal Mental Hospital for an Ethnic Group.” The American journal of psychiatry 156, no. 5 (1999): 767–767.
Bogdan, Robert, and Ann Marshall. “Views of the Asylum: Picture Postcard Depictions of Institutions for People with Mental Disorders in the Early 20th Century.” Visual sociology 12, no. 1 (1997): 4–27.
Burch, Susan. Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and Beyond Institutions. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021.
–. “‘Dislocated Histories’: The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians.” Women, gender, and families of color 2, no. 2 (2014): 141–162.
Leahy, Todd E. “The Canton Asylum: Indians, Psychiatrists, and Government Policy, 1899–1934”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2004.
Putney, Diane T. “The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902–1934.” South Dakota history 14, no. 1 (1984): 1–30.
Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Sweet, Kelli. “Controversial Care: The Canton Indian Insane Asylum: 1902–19”. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2000.
Whitt, Sarah. “‘Care and Maintenance’: Indigeneity, Disability and Settler Colonialism at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902–1934.” Disability studies quarterly 41, no. 4 (2022).
1. For more about Vanished in Hiawatha, please read the annotation in the LitMed Database.
2. For example, in 1984, a detailed profile of the asylum was published by the South Dakota State
Historical Society; in 1997, scholars mentioned Canton Asylum in passing when examining historic
postcard visual culture of mental health facilities; later, in 1999, The American Journal of Psychiatry
published a brief historical overview of the institution; and, in 2000, an MA thesis researched at the
University of Nebraska, Omaha, closely examined the asylum.
3. Specifically, Sarah Whitt’s recent article traces the connections between institutionalization and
Indigenous land dispossession. Susan Burch’s article and monograph explore how
institutionalization weakened Indigenous family-kinship networks. In a different vein, which you
acknowledge in your introduction, Todd E. Leahy’s dissertation examines how the asylum
mirrored the U.S. government’s official attitude toward Indigenous populations.