Honoring the Dead: A Digital Archive of the Insane Indian Asylum / Stacey Berry

This case study describes the development of a digital collection focused on a federal detention facility for Native Americans, where the project managers were not from a Native American background. They describe their process of working closely with representatives from the Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story, a group of Native Americans stewarding the history and legacy of the asylum in South Dakota, and how they worked to make sure the digital collection and its display are in service to the Native cultural perspective.

By Stacey Berry, Associate Professor of English for New Media, Dakota State University

“For so long our stories have been told for us, about us. People have been telling our stories of resistance from a colonial perspective for hundreds of years now and it is important for us to take back the narrative.” — Sarain Carson-Fox, Anishinaabekwe nation 1

Problem and context statement

The Insane Indian Asylum, or what is sometimes referred to as the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, was a federal facility for Native Americans located in Canton, South Dakota, about an hour’s driving distance from Dakota State University, the academic institution where I currently teach as an Associate Professor of English for New Media. In 1898, Congress passed a bill creating the only institution for insane Indians and it opened to patients in January of 1903. From the opening of the facility until its closing in 1934, a wealth of documentation was generated including annual reports, letters to and from the institution, patient census rolls, statistical information and more. The documents contain information about the nature and working of the asylum and the people who were held there. For example, a 1927 investigation by the Bureau of Indian Affairs reveals that most patients showed no signs of mental illness. The asylum was operational for nearly 30 years and housed more than 400 patients. At least 121 of those people died at the facility.

Much research has been done about the Indian Boarding schools established in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the negative long-term effects that they had and continue to have on Native culture and identity. A great deal of research has also been done on asylums for other marginalized groups, such as African Americans, who were often confined against their will and abused in institutions across the nation. In comparison, not much attention has been paid to this case. There are just two books published on the Insane Indian Asylum and only a few journal articles.2

Provocation for the initiative

At both the local and national level, people are generally unaware that the asylum existed. This gap in information is specifically relevant for Native Americans who may have had relatives or tribal members confined at Canton. Lack of access to information is a major contributing factor to this problem, as the physical documents are currently held in National Archives and other repositories across the United States. Poor record keeping during the years the institution was open also presents access problems about what story can be told about the history of the institution and the experiences of Native Americans who were held there.

Descriptive analysis

To address issues of access, I have been working with my colleague John Nelson, also a Professor of English for New Media at DSU, to create Honoring the Dead: A Digital Archive of the Insane Indian Asylum with the intention of publishing what governmental evidence exists regarding the internment of Native Americans at the asylum from 1903 to 1934. The work includes digitization of census rolls of inmates and their tribal designations and annual and statistical reports which include illnesses, deaths, medical experimentation, as well as general information about the daily life and workings of the institution. The digitization and publication of the documents as a digital archive will make information about the asylum and the Native Americans who were held there accessible to tribes and to researchers and scholars.

The first stage of work to photograph and catalog documents held at the South Dakota State Archives in Pierre, South Dakota was completed in the Spring of 2017. A grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council and an innovation grant from DSU supported this phase of the project. With the assistance of an undergraduate researcher, Kennedi Ford, we are currently in the second stage of processing over a thousand images into document groups and then into fully transcribed and searchable items with metadata, tag sets, and accompanying page images into the archive. The rich tag sets will facilitate searches for individual patients, government officials, place names, medical terms, and other related topics.

Because the documents contain information that could be culturally sensitive, we follow established best practices for handling Native American artifacts and information. In April 2006, a group of archivists, librarians, historians, anthropologists, and museum curators representing fifteen Native American, First Nation, and Aboriginal and four non-Native communities gathered to identify “best professional practices for culturally responsive care and use of American Indian archival material held by non-tribal organizations.”

The Protocols address:

  • The recognition of the sovereign governments and associated rights of Native American communities.
  • Issues in the collection, ownership, preservation, handling, access, and use of American Indian archival resources.
  • The importance of building relationships, balancing different approaches to knowledge management, and mutual respect.
  • The need to expand the nature of the information professions to include Native American perspectives and knowledge.

As our project work progresses, we must also create our own standards to establish how we might attempt to honor marginalized experiences through the oppressive lens of institutional records and government agency forms.

Stakeholders and audience

The primary stakeholders for the Honoring the Dead digital archive are tribes and Native people, especially those who may have members or relatives who were confined in the asylum. The primary research audience is academics — geographers, historians, indigenous studies scholars, social and political scientists, and other humanities practitioners.

We knew before our project work began that we needed to collaborate with Native Americans, specifically individuals already doing work with the history and legacy of the asylum in South Dakota. We met with two representatives of the Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story, Lakota artist Jerry Fogg and Counselor Anne Dilenschneider, and we explained our intentions to gain access to documents related to the asylum in order to digitize them and make them publicly available.

Fogg’s and Dilenschneider’s work over many years as members of the Keepers has been “focused on education, reconciliation, & restoration related to the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum in Canton, South Dakota.” They are also South Dakota Humanities Council Scholars and present together “Healing Our Shared Past, Present, and Future: The Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum.” Their work to educate people about this largely unknown part of our shared history as a way to also heal the wound reflected the primary goals of the Honoring the Dead project that we were proposing. The Keepers gave us their blessing to do the digitization work and publish the government documents, because we share the same goal to make the story known on a wider scale.

Before having seen any of the government documentation, Nelson and I discussed some of our potential concerns about the sensitive nature of the material in a meeting with Fogg. We knew that the records would contain names and tribal affiliations, along with possible medical diagnoses and other descriptions of Native American people. Fogg’s long history working with education and outreach related to the asylum, as both a SDHC scholar and as a Native artist, revealed to us that attempts had already been made through outreach to tribes to investigate possible connections. The Keepers had a list of over 400 people admitted to the asylum over the years and a similar list was recently published in Joinson’s 2016 book Vanished in Hiawatha. The Keepers had already sent letters, emails, and made phone calls to investigate responses to the publication of this information, and Fogg advised us that the feedback was positive and that records to establish connections to known living relatives, in most cases, would not be available.

Solutions and adaptations

As we began processing more than a thousand images of letters, annual reports, and census data related to the institution from the South Dakota State Historical Society into the digital archive, we established editorial guidelines. Each database entry presents a fully transcribed plain text version of the document that is also fully searchable across the items in the collection, along with a PDF viewer version of the document images. Our goal is to present the documents with as little editorial interpretation from us as possible, with key names, places, and other relevant information highlighted through tags in order to help the documents speak to one another as the project continues to grow. Our intention is that this light editorial hand will also allow the documents to speak to other researchers and to tribal representatives.

Processing the documents into a database prompted us to imagine how the information could or should be used beyond our initial goal of just making the information publicly available and fully searchable. For example, we began looking at ways to isolate and visualize data from the census rolls. The census reports include the names, tribal affiliations, reservations, and states for each of the patients at the asylum during that year. Turning rows and columns of information into dynamic or interactive maps might help to present a clearer and more compelling picture not just of how the asylum affected the people who lived and died there, but also how it impacted tribes and families.

When we translate the document data into map visualizations, we also have to remain aware that, as new media scholar Lev Manovich and cultural theorists like Gloria Anzaldua have continually reminded us, Google and mapping and the world of cartography in general present borders and geopolitical divisions and visual representations of place that are inherently biased, especially in presenting information about people who have been displaced from their native lands. In turn, if we rely upon these technologies as mediators of our scholarship, we have to be aware of the biases and influences that we are passing on to the stories that we intend to tell. As we develop research tools and data visualizations, we will work with our advisory board to make sure that we balance the project’s desire to make information more widely accessible with respect to cultural perspective.

New problems

Our effort to accumulate, organize, digitize, and make available the documents to tell the tragic story of this institution seeks to right the historical record by making the information available, especially for future study. In doing this work, we realize that in order to tell the hidden story of the asylum through the documents, we are presenting a version of the story as recorded, told, and collected only by dominant culture.

The Protocols for Native American Archival Materials cover the practices necessary for both culturally sensitive material objects as well as non-material objects related to histories and stories. Because the items related to the Honoring the Dead project are by their nature not Native, as government documents created by non-Native people, and all of the stories and information are therefore considered part of the public record, we must confront a big problem that scholars like Anelise Shrout and others have wrestled with: often archives enact violence on the subjects that they mean to preserve.3

Recently a relevant Twitter conversation emerged between Krista McCracken, Public Historian and Archivist at Algoma University, and the Newberry Library about the digitization of a large body of Lakota artwork. McCracken challenged the Newberry’s best practices, calling into question what seemed to her a lack of indigenous collaboration. The conversation is relevant for our project case and the questions we are currently addressing. We have followed the same kind of practices established by many libraries and archives. The Newberry sought permission and collaborated with the appropriate tribal representatives regarding the artwork that they were digitizing and making public. But, McCracken’s reminder is relevant to anyone working in or with material related to indigenous cultures, because “open access is not automatically decolonization.”4

Next steps

As our project evolves and we gain access to more documents, which will reveal unknown information about both the asylum and the people who were held there, we will remain focused on our primary stakeholders — the growing number of identifiable Native American tribes and families and individuals. The evolving nYESature of that stakeholder group will mean that we must remain committed to constantly evaluating the difference between open access and decolonization in our handling of culturally sensitive information, and we can only achieve this understanding through communication and collaboration with the project’s advisory board. We remain in contact primarily through email conversations, as questions arise or important connections emerge, and we plan to arrange a trip for a small group of us to digitize more archival documents in 2019. Dilenschneider is currently working with over 50 Tribal Historic Preservation Officers along with historical societies and Native research groups to distribute the currently collected documents via flash drives to ensure simple access with or without the Internet.

The Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum story held their annual Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum Honoring Ceremony on June 9th, 2018 to recognize the 121+ people who died and were buried in unmarked graves at the site of the facility, which is now a golf course. After the ceremony, Dilenschneider, shared with me a story about the importance of open access to information and of collaboration. Last year, Lindsay Lee Miller, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield, UK attended the Honoring ceremony. Since then, Miller has been traveling across the US digitizing asylum documents related to their own research, which includes the Canton Asylum. Miller recently provided access to all of the digitized records related to the Asylum to the Keepers. Our project team will work with Dilenschneider and The Keepers to publish these documents both via our digital archive and by distributing the digital files to Native American libraries, archives, and tribes.

Through collaboration and a commitment to sharing information, our project has grown overnight from one thousand images into thousands of digitized documents that otherwise might have taken us years to collect on our own. While we know that these documents will likely bring about new questions about how to make public culturally sensitive information presented through the eyes of the colonizer, we also know that we have a growing group of like-minded project participants to help us with our editorial intention to give the narrative back to Native Americans.

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  1. Rise and indigenise with Sarain Carson-Fox (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXvC3uIi6Ns)
  2. Todd Leahy’s They Called it Madness: The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians 1899-1934 (2009) and Carla Joinson’s Vanished in Hiawatha: The Story of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians (2016) focus primarily on the governmental establishment and operation of the institution through the years. Joinson’s research provides a historical interpretation of primary archival documents held in the National Archives collections, as well as a list of patient names with tribal affiliation, as a way of imagining what life was like for inmates, administrators, and staff.
  3. http://www.anelisehshrout.com/what-do-we-do-about-archival-violence-dh2017-talk/
  4. https://twitter.com/kristamccracken/status/994294796855447553