All posts by Glynnis

The Hiawatha (Canton) Asylum for Insane Indians and Repatriation of Collected People and Culture

Abandoned insane asylums are a topic of morbid curiosity for many people today – ghost tours, trespassing, and fascination with mental illness and pop psychology all invoke Freud’s concept of the “uncanny” – “the appearance of that which is thought to be hidden and would remain so but has been brought to the surface (Jackson, 2016, p. 161). An example is the case of the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in Canton, South Dakota, which operated from circa 1902 to 1934. The Hiawatha Asylum functioned as tool of cultural imperialism by collecting “rebellious” Native bodies.

The asylum where majority sane Native Americans aged two to 80 were held captive.

The cemetery adjacent to the asylum consists of 121 unmarked graves of Hiawatha patients from 53 different tribes (Duty, 2015). It has been found that many of these patients died because they were denied the care they needed, and that although there is a list of names of the dead (unrelated to grave location), no cause of death or reason for incarceration at the asylum was listed. On the flip side, in 1933, the Bureau of Indian Affairs found that many of the patients at the Asylum were not actually mentally ill, but rather kept at the institution because they refused to assimilate into white Euro-American culture in one form or another, whether that was by singing traditional songs or getting into physical fights with white men (Stawicki, 1997). Furthermore, the asylum was determined by investigators to not be up to standard for an institution treating the mentally ill (keep in mind that these were early 1900s standards, so it had to be awful not to pass minimum standard). Living patients were even “shown” to paying visitors — a true example of objectification.

These factors essentially combined into a “collection” of Native Americans who rebelled against white supremacy – one without context due to unmarked graves and non-existent records of exactly why each individual was institutionalized. It was a collection created without proper protocol and qualifications by the people running the institution. In this way, it was a collection utilized to exert power upon a marginalized group, which relates to the case of the 1914 fire at the Florida Industrial School for Boys, and the issues there related to the lack of documentation of burials and disregard for the health and safety of the boys there.

The asylum’s cemetery is now surrounded by a gold course — does this further delegitimize the lives of the patients kept there?

Also in both cases, the requests of the living are major factors in bringing a voice to the dead people who were objectified as collection items in life. Many descendants of those incarcerated at the Hiawatha Asylum are left with little to no information about why their ancestors were taken away and where they are now buried. One example of strides in repatriation efforts related to the Hiawatha Asylum is a 2015 effort to repatriate an Osage man from the cemetery there by the nation’s Traditional Cultural Advisors Committee (thanks in part to NAGPRA). While it is hard to find direct descendants, the Osage as a nation claim him, requesting to restore a memorial for all Native Americans buried at the site.


Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians: The Parallel of Honor

Further Reading:

‘A Living Burial’: Inside the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians









The Parthenon Marbles, Past to Present

The Elgin (Parthenon) marbles, consisting of sculptures and friezes, are displayed around the world today – about half of which in the British Museum, thanks to Lord Elgin, British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early 1800s. By “rescuing” these artifacts from the “barbaric” Turks, Elgin believed he was doing a service to the art by preventing it from decay.

Today we must ask, to whom do the marbles belong? Taken from the Parthenon in Greece during a time of political turmoil, many people, including myself, believe they should be repatriated and reunified in the New Acropolis Museum in Athens. Others consider the marbles to be rightfully owned by the British Museum, and that repatriation to Greece would unfairly strip the museum of precious artifacts and displays. In considering these differing viewpoints, it’s important to realize who benefits (or doesn’t) from the repatriation process.

Some of the Elgin marbles on display at the British Museum.

Despite it having been over 200 years since the Elgin marbles were first displayed in the British Museum, the issue of repatriation has still not been resolved. The museum argues that Elgin was in the right when he first obtained the marbles because the artifacts were already in disrepair. In addition, a Parliamentary Committee in 1816 affirmed the legality of the acquisition and display of the artifacts (British Museum – Parthenon Sculptures). But, just because it was deemed legal in the eyes of the takers of the artifacts, does not mean it was legal to the people of Greece! Even so, the current trustees of the museum argue that having the marbles in both London and Athens promotes an understanding of Greek culture, transcending political boundaries.

On the other hand, organizations such as the International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures (IARPS) have sent letters to the British government as recently as 2014, asking them to participate in the UNESCO mediation process proposed in 2010 by Greece for the reunification of the Parthenon marbles (IARPS). They consider the marbles to be illicitly acquired cultural artifacts. They are put on display in London for no charge, but considering Greece’s current debt crisis, I think displaying the marbles in Athens for a charge could be a form of economic repatriation.

Some of the Elgin marbles on display at the New Acropolis Museum. Would repatriating the British Museum’s collection provide the New Acropolis Museum with better exposure and funds in a country currently in economic despair?

In reference to Elgin’s actions, what the British Museum describes as acting with full knowledge and permission, IARPS describes as stripping and taking away. But, the British have refused to meaningfully discuss why Greece deserves the marbles back. These conflicting viewpoints provide insight into the complications of repatriation, belonging, and ownership. I believe that due to the political climate in what is now Greece at the time when the marbles were taken, they couldn’t have been justly acquired, regardless of any paperwork Elgin could have presented. There will never be a single right answer that every group involved can agree on – but hopefully there will come a point where it is the responsibility of the taker to address the concerns of those from whom cultural artifacts were taken.

Works Cited

British Museum – Parthenon Sculptures

International Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures

Photo Sources

New Acropolis Museum

Why the Elgin Marbles Should Stay in London