The Canton Asylum: Indians, psychiatrists, and government policy, 1899--1934 (South Dakota)

Todd E. Leahy
History of Medicine and Health Care, Oklahoma State University
July, 2004


This dissertation examines the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota; the only federally operated mental institution specifically designed for Native Americans. The asylum was founded on the traditions of reform politics and scientific understanding of the 'Indian Problem' during the late nineteenth century. As part of the larger push for Indian assimilation, the United States government appropriated funds for the construction of the asylum in 1899. The asylum was designed to serve the dual purposes of improving the general health of the Indian communities by either treating the afflicted or permanently removing him or her to a protective environment. The practice of psychiatric medicine at the turn of the twentieth century reflected the assimilationist desire of the Indian Service and focused on curing mental disorders by instilling their patients with normal behavior patterns as Euroamericans defined them. From its beginning, the Canton Asylum faced many challenges. Dominated by bureaucratic infighting, limited resources, cultural misunderstandings, untrained or ill-equipped staff, the asylum was doomed. Policymakers were never clear as to whether the asylum operated under the guidelines of the various Indian boarding schools or whether it constituted an independent agency. The Canton Asylum was intended to embody the principles of healing, in the wake of bureaucratic indecision, the asylum evolved into an institution of social control. Numerous investigations proved the Canton Asylum was a nightmare for the inmates and as a result, the experiment in the scientific control of Indians failed and was officially closed by order of Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier in 1934. The sources utilized in this dissertation consisted of the administrative records of the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians from 1899 to 1934. Also consulted were the available records of the various inmates of the asylum. Many of the individual records were missing, but those available shed valuable light on the way of life inside the walls of the asylum. Secondary sources established a basic timeline in the development of psychiatry and general Indian policy. The intention of utilizing such a wide array of sources was to place the asylum into a larger national and international context, rather than studying the institution as an aberration in the theater of American Indian policy.