Carla Joinson

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In 1902, an unusual structure was erected on South Dakota’s windswept prairies. It was not a silo, farmhouse, or barn—buildings that would be perfectly commonplace in that corner of the state. This conspicuously odd edifice, a “two-story building, with its jasper granite foundations,” was called the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, a first-of-its-kind and federally managed institution based outside of Canton, South Dakota (Joinson 24). The asylum, which operated from 1902 to 1934, was designed to incarcerate and treat Indigenous peoples deemed ‘mad’ by powerful political authorities, such as reservation superintendents and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the historian and disability studies scholar, Susan Burch, the facility “ultimately held four hundred men, women, and children from seventeen states and nearly fifty tribal nations.”

In Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, Carla Joinson provides an incisive institutional history of the Canton Asylum, examining the political motivations for its establishment, its different periods of (mis)management, and, ultimately, its demise in the early 1930s due to inspection findings and Indigenous affairs advocacy spurred by John Collier. In writing the book, Joinson seeks to answer her chief research question: “why an institution like this asylum could exist for so many years, and what made it tick as a viable part of the Interior Department” (2). Her research explores the mechanics of institutional longevity, specifically how, despite government inspection reports that revealed appalling evidence of neglect and abuse, the facility remained in operation for over three decades. Joinson’s book also corroborates the staggering fact that many of the asylum’s patients were not, in fact, ‘insane,’ but sent to the institution only so that the federal government could detain and surveil people who may have experienced difficulties with reservation authorities back home. Other Indigenous peoples, such as those with epilepsy and ‘feeblemindedness,’ were also deemed ‘mad’ and in need of medical detention. Many instances of abuse are chronicled: unhygienic conditions, patient restraint, fraudulent diagnoses and misdiagnoses, suicide, and failure to quarantine tubercular patients. Joinson also unearths decades-long dysfunction among the facility’s administration: staff backbiting and high turnover rates, lack of medical treatment, poor medical training and recordkeeping, and refusal to employ translators to communicate with Indigenous patients and understand their different cultures. Vanished in Hiawatha documents that Canton’s patients suffered years of neglect, and those who would have potentially benefitted from psychiatric treatment never received it because the facility was little more than a rural prison for unwanted, troublesome, and chronically ill Indigenous peoples.

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