Hiawatha Insane Asylum

Lakota Law

As we enter the dog days of August, I think it’s fair to say that 2021 has become a year for recognition and reckoning. Of course, Native People grow up with a heightened understanding of the genocide on which the U.S. was founded. Today, I want to share a little more of that perspective with you.

As an ally integral to our movement for justice, your willingness to engage with hard truths is appreciated. You can help us spread the word and find a better way forward. Today, as part of this process, I ask you — if you can stomach it — to watch this special report about the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum from prominent South Dakota news organization KELO.

Yankton Nation member and artist Jerry Fogg is a keeper of the Hiawatha story. He created this piece in remembrance of the many Native People lost at Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum. Watch Kelo’s special investigative report here.

Hiawatha was a horrific place, located right here in South Dakota — something that should surprise nobody. Its reputation among Native People was so bad that the threat of being sent there was used as a deterrent for children who misbehaved at boarding schools. As some of the keepers of this story mention in their interviews with KELO, it housed people from many tribal nations, and once you went in, you were very unlikely to come out.

It’s hard to find an “insane asylum” with a good reputation. But of course, the conditions at the one that impounded Native folks were far worse than most. Most of those sent to Hiawatha were anything but “crazy.” As my colleague, Chase Iron Eyes, put it earlier today, many of these relatives were spiritually gifted. Others probably just had too much fighting spirit for their own good.

I know this is a heavy topic, and I thank you for reading. We are living in troubled times, and it’s only with your attention that we can avoid making the same mistakes again and leave a more equitable world to our future generations. 

Wopila tanka — my gratitude for being on this difficult journey with us. You’re making things better!
Madonna Thunder Hawk
Cheyenne River Organizer
The Lakota People’s Law Project

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