Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians

Joinson, Carla

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: History of Medicine

  • Date of entry: Aug-08-2022
  • Last revised: Aug-08-2022


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.


Joinson presents a compelling institutional history of Canton Asylum using a biographical lens to examine the lives, personalities, and decisions of the asylum’s two superintendents, Oscar S. Gifford (1902–1908) and his replacement, Dr. Harry Reid Hummer (1908–1932). Rather than psychologizing or psychoanalyzing the men who managed the asylum, she draws on a range of primary sources to understand how their respective administrative habits impacted medical and policy decisions. Focused on articulating an institutional history, Joinson’s writing is generally expository (with the exception of the final chapter, “Afterthoughts”), not anchored by specific theories or frameworks, which supports a linear narrative that follows the lifespan of the asylum. Joinson’s approach magnifies how the institution, its bureaucratic clockwork, and medical authorities operated. A key strength of Joinson’s book is the engagement and interpretation of primary sources. She gives granular readings of the correspondence among asylum superintendents, Bureau of Indian Affairs authorities, and reservation agents, as well as government inspection and cost reports, which reveal the depth of the asylum’s mismanagement and the harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples. These official documents, providing information about superintendents, internal power struggles, funding and personnel debates, and federal reprimands for abuses, offer grim insight into asylum life. Readers interested in the history of psychiatry, institutionalization, Indigenous studies, or early twentieth-century politics will appreciate Joinson’s meticulous portrait of Canton Asylum.


From a historiography viewpoint, Joinson’s account contributes a different perspective to the existing scholarship on Canton Asylum. For example, Sarah Whitt’s recent article, “‘Care and Maintenance’: Indigeneity, Disability and Settler Colonialism at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, 1902–1934” (2022), traces the networks linking settler colonialism, institutionalization, and Indigenous land dispossession. With a different focus, Susan Burch’s article, “‘Dislocated Histories’: The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians” (2014), and recent monograph, Committed: Remembering Native Kinship In and Beyond Institutions (2021), explore how institutionalization undermined Indigenous family-kinship networks, vitiating the social strength and morale of communities. Burch’s work supports Indigenous communities’ efforts to build stories and connections through a shared history of institutionalization and its intergenerational impacts. In a different vein, Todd E. Leahy’s dissertation, “The Canton Asylum: Indians, Psychiatrists, and Government Policy, 1899–1934” (2004), examines how the asylum mirrored the U.S. government’s official attitude toward Indigenous populations.


Bison Books (University of Nebraska Press)

Place Published

Lincoln, Nebraska



Page Count