Case Study: The Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians

Ward B Living Quarters

Still photo of psychiatric living quarters demonstrating how overcrowding was addressed by hospital administration

Throughout history, governmental agencies have supported a litany of horrific actions in pursuit of the total economic displacement of indigenous populations, in order to provide legal justification for their self entitled prerogative of abuse for economic gain. Some of these attempts were governmentally funded under the guise of indigenous protection by providing mental health resources, leading to the creation of indigenous psychiatric institutions. One such institution opened in 1902 in southeastern South Dakota, starting the 30 year reign of terror exposed at the Hiawatha Insane Asylum for Indians. This use of federal psychiatric hospitals allowed for the forced commitment and imprisonment of indigenous people, oftentimes without documentation of mental illness. In its existence as a governmental facility, more than 350 indigenous people were forcibly institutionalized and at least 121 people died from causes directly tied to institutionalization. 

Transorbital Lobotomy Instrument

Instructional illustration regarding the procedural aspects of lobotomization

In the 1900s, the United States started to crack down on its “war on poverty,” unjustly labeling minority communities as “unfit” to nourish the youths of America. As a result, the government attempted to decrease the birth rates of impoverished areas, effectively targeting systematically oppressed, low income, minority families. This mentality fostered an environment in these psychiatric facilities where the patients were dehumanized and forcibly removed from society and were constantly at risk for procedural experimentation. Forced sterilization was protected by the law, and forced hysterectomies were shockingly common under healthcare provided for females in minority communities. Often with a language barrier, informed consent was rarely made and allowed for women going in for annual checkup to leave sterilized without their knowledge. This allowed US hospitals to perform tubal ligations and hysterectomies- permanent and irreversible procedures that prevented minority communities from furthering their populations, which were already threatened by low numbers. Similar sentiments were shown through the instances of forced lobotomization, a practice of severing connections in the brain's prefrontal cortex, making patients much more docile and subservient and allowing for further abuse.