Buried On the Lone Prairie


By Tom Clavin

“The Overlook” appears every Thursday at tomclavin.substack.com. An overlook is usually a place from which one can see in many if not all directions, including where one has been and where one is going. If you enjoy the column, please "like" it and let me know what you think by commenting (check out previous ones while you're at it).  Likes, comments, and shares help with author discoverability on Substack.com, and all support is appreciated.And don't forget to hit the ‘Subscribe’ button – it’s free!

I will remain what I am until I die, a hunter, and when there are no buffalo or other game I will send my children to hunt and live on prairie, for where an Indian is shut up in one place his body becomes weak.

Sitting Bull

          Some of you may have seen news reported in The New York Times and elsewhere over this past weekend about the discovery of a mass grave in British Columbia. The remains of as many as 215 children were found near the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which opened in 1890 and closed in the 1970s.

          Kamloops was one of the schools in Canada that indigenous children were forced to attend. That country’s National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has determined that over 4000 students died while attending such schools from such causes as mistreatment, neglect, disease, and accidents. Because many families were not informed of the fates of the students, for decades these children were listed as “missing.” According to The Times article, in 2015, the Canadian commission concluded that these schools for indigenous children were a program of “cultural genocide.” And according to Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations in Saskatchewan, the deaths are a “national tragedy.”

          This news reminded me of a similar national tragedy, an American one that has mostly gone unreported. And in turn I was reminded of a U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1831 in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, when Chief Justice John Marshall wrote: “The Indians look to our government for protection; rely upon its kindness and power; appeal to it for relief to their wants; and address the president as the Great Father.” What did such kindly sentiments get the Indians? The beginning of the Trail of Tears.

          That horrific ordeal which killed 4000 Indians and the Wounded Knee massacre 59 years after that Supreme Court ruling in which as many as 300 Indians were slaughtered by U.S. Army troops are probably the two most well-known events that desecrated and nearly destroyed American Indian tribes. Yet there is a very powerful story that pretty much no one knows except for the descendants of those who experienced it. I believe it’s a story that could rank with the revelations of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life ofHenrietta Lacks. It’s where the Trail of Tears meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

          The story begins at Wounded Knee. That was not a battle, as many people think, but an attack that had been building for weeks. In the years since Crazy Horse’s surrender and murder in 1877, the remaining Indians on the Plains had been relentlessly herded onto reservations, including powerful leaders like Sitting Bull and Red Cloud. Members of some of the tribes tried to hold on to their languages and cultural practices, and there was building resentment when the U.S. government repeatedly suppressed them. In 1890, Sitting Bull was murdered. The fallout from that combined with a surging interest in the Ghost Dance as a representation of the traditional Indian way of life put the U.S. Army on edge. In December, on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota, an officer ordered a Lakota Sioux, Black Coyote, to give up his rifle. The officer was unaware that Black Coyote was deaf and he assumed the lack of compliance would lead to violence. Shots were fired. Soon after, the 7th Cavalry attacked and killed many of the men, women, and children on the reservation.

          The suppression of the Indian way of life was more severe after that, yet some Sioux, Cheyenne, and others persisted in speaking their own language and conducting cultural and religious rites. In 1898, Congress established the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, which was located in Canton, South Dakota. It was created for two reasons: (1) It was pork for that part of South Dakota, as the first chief administrator, Oscar Gifford, was a congressman and former mayor of Canton, and the facility provided jobs, and (2) It was essentially a prison for Indians declared insane because they were viewed as troublemakers for insisting on retaining their language and culture.

          It is not known for sure how many Indians from all over the country were declared insane and sent to the Hiawatha Asylum. Such a declaration could be done by almost any white person in an authority position on the reservations, with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs signing off on it. One estimate is at least a thousand Indians were taken from reservations. There are records that tell us that until the facility closed in 1934, an average of four Indians died per month there. Some bodies were returned to families but most were interred in the asylum’s cemetery in unmarked graves.

          Conditions in the asylum were horrific. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. It was understaffed, and those who worked there had no medical or psychological training and did not speak any of the native languages. Wooden bats and steel chains did the talking for them. The little food doled out was usually inedible. Windows were sealed shut and chamber pots were left full of human waste. Patients slept on sheets blackened by the coal dust that covered the floors. Some “troublemakers” were locked in isolation for years at a time. Gifford and the man who succeeded him as chief administrator padded their pockets by welcoming tourists who paid to see the inmates paraded before them.

          This went on for decades. There were even children born to inmates, most of whom did not survive more than a few days. The atrocities were endless. But then there was a glimmer of hope.

          John Collier had been born in 1884 in Atlanta. His family struggled financially, and by the time he was 16 his mother died of drugs and his father committed suicide. He was very intelligent and resilient, however, and he worked his way through Columbia University. For 13 years he developed programs for immigrant neighborhoods in major cities, then he went looking for something else. Collier ended up joining the artists colony overseen by Mabel Dodge in Taos, New Mexico. There he encountered American Indians for the first time. He became immersed in their history and culture. He spent the 1920s into the ‘30s on Indian food and education issues and writing for numerous newspapers and magazines, and he founded the American Indian Defense Association.

          After Franklin Roosevelt took office his Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes (who would later learn a relative had been a Hiawatha inmate), recommended Collier to be the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Within a year he had persuaded Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which reversed over 50 years of policies by emphasizing Indian self-determination, the return of Indian land, and allowing Indians to embrace their languages and cultural traditions. It remains the single most important federal legislation to protect and preserve American Indians. It also led to Indians being granted citizenship, though that effort took another 14 years to become law. Another achievement was closing the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

          This took an intense effort which began with Collier learning about and visiting the facility. He wanted to close it immediately but faced stubborn opposition from people within his own department who viewed him as an Indian appeaser. He was also opposed by some members of Congress, especially those representing people who had found ways to make money off Indians. (It didn’t seem to bother anyone that the first Hiawatha director had been fired for stealing federal funds.) But Collier was resilient, and right, and with the backing of President Roosevelt he finally closed the facility. He was able to return some patients to their families, and for others, especially those who genuinely needed treatment, he found more humane facilities.

          Collier eventually left government service but remained an activist and writer for Indian causes. He served as director of the National Indian Institute and a sociology professor at the College of the City of New York. He and his wife had a son who went on to become an anthropologist and photographer. In his later years Collier lived again in Taos, where he died in 1968 at age 84. As far as any white man could be called this, he is an unsung hero of Indians in America.

To the great dismay of family members, many of the bodies of those who died at Hiawatha will never be found. There are 121 known graves still on the site. Given white America’s historical and ongoing relationship with its Indian population, it is a perfect metaphor that sitting atop those graves today is a golf course.

When it comes to the genocide of its aboriginal people, the Canadians got nothing on us.

Tom Clavin is the bestselling author/co-author of 18 books, including his latest collaboration with Bob Drury, Blood and Treasure: Daniel Boone and theFight for America’s First Frontier, published in April by St. Martin’s Press and still residing on national bestseller lists. Please go to your local bookstore or to Bookshop.org, Amazon.com, or BN.com to purchase a copy.