The rain fell softly and gently this past Sunday, almost as if someone were quietly weeping. It was a sporadic sprinkle, as if someone was saying, don’t forget about us. I went with my brother and sister in law to an honoring ceremony held on a golf course in the small town of Canton, South Dakota.
The southeastern corner of South Dakota had two honoring ceremonies, two memorials this past weekend. I attended the second one but saw the first one on the news.
The first one was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota at a beautiful park called Falls Park, where just a few months before a 28 year old Lakota man, Lyle Eagle Tail and 16 year old Madison Wallace, who never met each other, jumped in the foamy waters to save the life of the young 6 year old child who was the girl’s younger brother. While they saved his life, they both sacrificed their young lives. So far there has been an unsuccessful campaign to rename the park after them or erect memorials in their honor.
However, a 10 foot bronze statue made by sculptor Darwin Wolf was dedicated in a grand ceremony on Friday. A ceremony celebrating the accomplishments and joy of the life of South Dakota’s first Senator R.F. Pettigrew. Senator Pettigrew was known for shaping the state’s economy. Often donating land for development and recreation himself.
Just two days later, after that honoring I found myself traveling just south of Sioux Falls to the small town of Canton to witness another honoring ceremony. Except this one was not one where you clap your hands and praise someone for all they did to shape your state. While it still involved Senator Richard Pettigrew, it did not sing praises to Pettigrew.
In the late 1890’s Senator Pettigrew traveled to Washington, DC to push for the institution in South Dakota to be built for Indians who had gone mad from across the nation. But history also tells us that most of these Indians were not insane, they had just not conformed and assimilated to living the way of the white man. The government thought it would be a step forward in improving upon the “savagery ways” of Native Americans and Pettigrew had his supporters to push it through.
If they were not mentally ill upon arrival before they entered the Canton Insane Asylum for Indians, they would soon be with their living conditions including laying in a darkened room with windows nailed shut for days at a time. One patient even reported to be laying in the same room for three years straight. Some patients lay in straight jackets for hours, one as young as ten years of age. The chamberpot of these “patients” often went unchanged and urine and feces flooded the only room they knew. If any patients escaped, they were hunted down with guns and an escape party. Babies were born and died at the asylum, there are no details as to how they were conceived to patients or how they died.
The conditions at the insane asylum were so horrible by the standards of 1929 when Dr. Samuel Silk, the Clinical Director at America’s premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, DC visited he had this to say;
“Three patients were found padlocked in rooms. One was sick in bed, supposed to be suffering from a brain tumor, being bedridden and helpless…a boy about 10 years of age was in a strait jacket lying in his bed…one patient who had been in the hospital six years was padlocked in a room and, according to the attendant, had been secluded in this room for nearly three years.”
He also realized that most patients were not insane but had clashed with white men;
“Would not the United States, if it could be held liable at all, be liable in these cases for enormous damages? The records of the asylum itself show them to be perfectly sane. They are known to be perfectly sane, to the director of the asylum Dr. Hummer. But he assumed the position that these people were below normal – mentally deficient – and they should only be discharged after they were sterilized, and as he did not have any means of doing this, there was nothing left but to keep them there.”
The insane asylum was closed in 1933 under Roosevelt, much to the disappointment of local Canton residents who took the case to federal court to keep their main employer open. Ten years later the government sold the 100 acre property to the city of Canton for one dollar. No one in the city thought it was strange to build a golf course around the graveyard. They never told anyone until the “Indians found out” according to the Craig Brown, who was the attorney for the land sale that the time.
Harold Iron Shield found out and held prayer memorials there for two decades, while he investigated the names of those who passed. The ceremonies ceased after his death in 2008 and this year was the first time a ceremony was held since then.
So when we pulled up to a golf course, which is the first time I ever went to a golf course in my life, I saw young men dejectedly walking away with their clubs. They had to wait according to one groundskeeper until 3pm to play. It was closed by the club for the ceremony. The ceremony that was held on a somewhat, rainy spring Sunday honored those who passed away and lived out their days with a broken heart. Lived their days out not knowing whether they would ever go home, and were buried in a ground with no honor, no remembrance, and nothing to mark their graves. The Indian Office at the time thought that marking their graves was an “added expense they could not afford.” They did not get a ten foot statue like the man who put them there. I was saddened to be there, to hear the names of even babies called out, and I tied a ribbon on the shoddy fence that don’t keep golfers out but only warns them to not hit their balls out of the cemetery. (They get a free drop to play the ball outside the cemetery. However they have to walk on top of those whose names were forgotten for years to get their ball.)
I will never forget Mary Pierre. I did not know her. I don’t know if she had children, had a favorite color, or if she looked at that Canton sky and dreamed of home. But I know I tied a black ribbon to the west for her. She died there on May 16, 1917. And I will never forget that. Or the lives of the 121 Native Americans who represent 49 nations that lie in unmarked graves between the 4th and 5th fairway.