History of Hiawatha: The threat behind the Indian boarding schools

Investigates

CANTON, S.D. (KELO) — In the spring, nearly 1,000 unmarked graves of indigenous children were discovered on the grounds of former Canadian boarding schools. Following international attention, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior announced an investigation into the history of U.S. boarding schools with a mission to find potential unmarked graves throughout this country and identify the children in them.

Some of those graves are in South Dakota. The state had 25 Indian boarding schools and was also home to the nation’s only insane asylum for Native Americans.

Our KELOLAND News investigation looks into the “threat behind the boarding schools” and the unmarked graves discovered at the old Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum site.

Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum/Photo Courtesy Canton Public Library

Most golfers hitting the links at the Hiawatha golf course in Canton probably don’t realize what lies between the fourth and fifth fairways.

A small cemetery, a reminder of South Dakota’s dark past, is marked off by a wooden fence tied with ribbons and feathers.

The Hiawatha cemetery which is believed to contain more than the 120 bodies listed on the marker

“As we enter from the west side, we come across the monument of 120 names of those who we know are interred here,” Ross Lothrop, Keeper of the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum story, said.

120 Native Americans lived in deplorable conditions until they died at the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum. In all, 400 Native inmates were housed here over three decades.

“The threat around the country and we’ve been told by elders that they heard this in boarding school–that if they were bad, they would be sent to Canton and everyone knew it was a death sentence if you were sent there. You didn’t really come out,” Anne Dilenschneider Keeper of the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum story, said.

All that remains today of the asylum building is part of the front entrance, which has been incorporated into a sign for the golf course. A few original barns are also still standing. However, several keepers of the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum are making sure what took place here is not forgotten.

The cemetery where Hiawatha inmates are buried is fenced in between the 4th and 5th fairways on the Canton golf course

“People vanished out of boarding schools; people went to jail and didn’t come back. People didn’t know where their relatives were, so it’s still a shock. It’s like finding out you had somebody in your family who was in a concentration camp,” Dilenschneider said.

The concentration camp analogy is not far-fetched.

“There actually is some evidence that Hitler studied what we did with the reservations, the boarding schools and Canton to figure out how to create the concentration camps in Germany. It’s a worldwide story, not just a local story,” Dilenschneider said.

A horrific story of shocking conditions.

“It’s not an insane asylum, it’s a prison. People are shackled to beds with chamber pots, even though it was state of the art with toilets and running water. The place was caked in soot. People were lying in their feces; maggots crawling on them.”

Anne Dilenschneider

Disease ran rampant and untreated. While Richard Pettigrew is often hailed as the founding father of Sioux Falls and South Dakota’s first senator, he had a hand in Hiawatha.

“Senator Pettigrew saw this as his solution to the ‘Indian problem.’ And he also saw this as a moneymaker,” Dilenschnider said.

A moneymaker it was–thousands of tourists flocked to the asylum, buying up souvenir plates and spoons.

Kennecke: Did tourists see how people were treated?
Dilenschneider: They were only allowed in at certain times on certain days.

Complaints about what was going on in Hiawatha led to more than two dozen investigations by federal authorities. But it was never enough to shut it down.

“There are reports that say, ‘these poor people are stuck in this terrible place, but they are going to have to stay here until they die,” Dilenschneider

A commerative spoon and plate from Hiawatha

Lothrop: Wow, that really happened in America…
Kennecke: Here.
Lothrop: Here, South Dakota.
Kennecke: It happened right here.
Lothrop: 53 tribes are represented in this cemetery from all over the nation.

Only two grave markers have surfaced and while the burial map lists 121 names, ground-sensing technology, indicates there may be even more bodies.

“And they found in in the first row on this side, seven other anomalies that do not have names on the plot map. So we don’t know,” Lothrop said.

“There are suspicions there are bodies elsewhere. We know some bodies were shipped back to reservations, but we’re not sure how often that really happened,” Dilenschnider said.

“It’s always been a battle or a massacre. I call this the slowest massacre on record because they just slowly did away for 30 years with our “Mitakuye Oyasin.” Jerry Fogg said.

“Ascension”/Courtesy Jerry Fogg

Jerry Fogg is an artist and member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

“When we do talk of our people we say, ‘Mitakuye Oyasin,’ which is ‘we are all related.’ And even though we don’t know these people; we have never met their relatives or anything else–in spirit, we are all related in who we are,” Fogg said.

Fogg uses his art to keep the story of Hiawatha alive.

“I talk about my artwork and come across a piece I have done on Hiawatha. And I mention, ‘This is the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum,’ and everybody starts looking at each other. What? And I say, ‘yes, this is outside of Canton.’ And they find it hard to believe,” Fogg said.

Dolls made by an inmate at Hiawatha

The horrors that took place here aren’t well documented and even those records were sealed for 70 years, not being made public until the early 2000s. Only a few artifacts remain, like dolls made by an inmate. After Hiawatha was finally shut down in 1933, the building changed hands a few times before being dismantled.

The cemetery is the only physical reminder of the suffering Native Americans endured.

“It’s quite a humbling and emotional experience when you come in and feel the spirit that is here,” Lothrop said.It’s a dark place in our history, but it’s something that has to be brought out.”

“Nobody is here to take care of these 53 tribes, 124 plus Native Americans. Nobody is there to speak up for them. They lay out there in the cold and the heat without any representation. And I am very happy for the keepers to come forward and include me in the process of informing the public. Now we just gotta get a bigger voice,” Fogg said.

You may be wondering why the asylum’s land was turned into a golf course. That happened in the 1940s, and because it was federal land, it could only be earmarked for public use. There are rules to keep golfers from playing in the cemetery.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Continuing The Conversation
See Full Weather Forecast

Trending Stories

Don't Miss!

More Don't Miss