Vanished in Hiawatha

Written by Carla Joinson
Review by Juliet Waldron

This is the story of the notorious Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, an institution begun as a government pork barrel project during the early 1900s in South Dakota. Just the fact that the subject is a 19th-century asylum for a dispossessed, defeated, and denigrated people should clue in any prospective reader to the shocking, saddening – and infuriating – content. This thoroughly and compassionately researched story of injustice (only nine of those Native Americans admitted actually had a diagnosis of “insanity,” the rest were there by administrative fiat) is detailed, readable, and comprehensive in scope. Among other things, it is also a telling documentation of what happens when a narcissistic personality gains control of an organization in a time when violence by management is the cultural norm. Vanished in Hiawatha pays tribute, patient by patient, to those individuals who were doomed to live there, chained to beds and locked in tiny dark rooms. The notes, acknowledgements, bibliographical and afterthoughts sections stand as testaments to the depth of this author’s dedication to researching a grim, shameful episode in American history.  Not a pleasant read, but an important witnessing of European-Native American relations during the early 19th century.