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Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond InstitutionsApril 27, 2021 at 4:00 pm on Zoom.

This event was real-time captioned.

Susan Burch, director of the American Studies Program at Middlebury College, joined 112 online participants for a talk about her new book, Committed: Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond Institutions (University of North Carolina Press, 2021). The book centers on peoples’ lived experiences inside and outside the Canton Asylum, a federal psychiatric institution created specifically to contain American Indians. After the talk, Dan Cobb of UNC’s American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program gave a brief response and moderated an open discussion with more than 20 questions addressed by Burch.

Attendees of the talk received a 40% discount on copies of the book ordered through UNC Press.

This event was co-sponsored by the Community Histories Workshop, Center for Urban and Regional Studies, American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program, and UNC Press.

Susan Burch is the author of Signs of Resistance: American Deaf Cultural History, 1900 to 1942 (2002) and coauthor, with Hannah Joyner, of Unspeakable: The Story of Junius Wilson (UNC Press, 2007). She also has edited numerous anthologies and an encyclopedia. She is serving as a visiting scholar in 2021 with the UNC Community Histories Workshop, consulting on its history of the insane asylum movement and the emergence of modern psychiatry in North Carolina.

The following is an access script from Burch’s talk:

Access Script: This access script is intended to accompany my book talk “Committed – Remembering Native Kinship in and beyond Institutions,” hosted by UNC-Chapel Hill, on April 27, 2021. Much of the material comes from Committed (the book), which is available in open access as well as paper. An audiobook option will be available this summer. This script intentionally does not include source citations; these can be accessed via the book. 

Content note: This presentation contains material about settler violence, institutionalization, abuse, death, and cross-generational trauma. 

Indigenous Land Acknowledgement: I’m joining you today from the ancestral land of Abenaki people. I’d want to acknowledge and express my gratitude to Abenaki elders and ancestors –past, present and future. 

Thank you: to Bobby Allen, Leah Tams, UNC’s Community Histories Workshop, Daniel Cobb and the American Indian & Indigenous Studies Program, Center for Urban and Regional Studies, UNC Press, the Critical Indigeneities Series (and its brilliant editors) and to others who helped make this event possible. 

Gratitude to Native elders, activists, historians, and to all of the family members—some of whom are attending today—whose generous support of this work made the book possible. I’d especially like to acknowledge Faith O’Neil (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), who granted me permission to share some of her family’s story with you today, as well as the names of her ancestors. 

Opening invitation to audience members: A commitment to access drove much of this book project. I’d like to extend that practice with you today and make explicit the invitation during this zoom gathering to stretch, get up, move around, stim, knit… do what you need to do in order to take care of yourself, including leave the meeting if/when you need to. A digital copy of my ‘script’ is available [it has been shared via the chat]. This might be useful not just to for those who may have difficulty hearing the talk (since I am presenting it orally), but also for anyone who benefits from accessing information at a different pace and place, realizing that environmental barriers among other factors impact our ways of learning.1 

Between 1902 and 1934, the United States confined hundreds of adults, elders, and children from dozens of Native nations at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, a federal psychiatric hospital in South Dakota. But detention at the Indian Asylum, as families experienced it, was not the beginning or end of the story. 

Committed weaves together a number of microhistories of individuals and their relatives on the inside and outside the Asylum walls. These cross-generational experiences are inextricably tied to broader stories of kinship, institutionalization, and remembering. For this talk I’m going to focus on one Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate family.  

According to Faith O’Neil, her grandmother Elizabeth Alexis Faribault was born in 1882 in what today is frequently called Minnesota. Like many Dakota Nation people, Elizabeth’s family was forced westward from their ancestral lands and on to reservations by the US government. Elizabeth Alexis grew up primarily on the Sisseton Reservation in northeastern South Dakota and that is where she met and, in 1900, married Jesse Faribault (a member of a prominent Dakota family). In the midst of overt and everyday tribal and family clashes with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an Agency police officer and physician arrived at the Faribault household in the summer of 1915 to remove the 32-year-old mother of six to a federal psychiatric facility in southeastern South Dakota designed specifically to detain American Indians. 

When Elizabeth Faribault was forcibly committed, she crossed a threshold into a distinctly institutional space—the Canton Asylum—and into a distinctly non-Native process: institutionalization. Tall wire fencing fortified the grounds. The Asylum’s sweeping brick and concrete Main Building conveyed order and control under U.S. settler sovereignty. During Faribault’s confinement in this federal facility, she was forced to provide labor on behalf of the institution, including care-work and other domestic service to Superintendent Harry Hummer’s family. 

As the Faribault family and many others experienced it, institutionalization at Canton violated their Native nation’s as well as their individual family’s self-determination. During her 13-year detention at Canton, Faribault’s family members and advocates repeatedly and unsuccessfully sought her release. Twice Elizabeth escaped the institution but was captured and returned. 

Medical systems/systems of power 

Asylum and BIA staff consistently judged Elizabeth Faribault and everyone else in the locked wards based on one system of medicine: Western (allopathic) biomedicine. Western biomedicine is a dominating force but not a universal truth. 

As the Faribault family and other Indigenous people have always known, there are many types of medicine, including numerous, distinct Indigenous practices and knowledge systems used across time to the present day. Recognizing multiple medical systems within a broader context of settler domination undermines the projected objectivity and commonsense logic of Western biomedical diagnoses and institutionalization. 

Acknowledging multiple sovereignties and systems of medicine resists what American studies scholar Jessica Cowing calls settler ableism. Ableism is a system of power and privilege that hierarchically organizes people and societies based on particular cultural values of productivity, competitive achievement, efficiency, capacity, and progress. An example of this is the discrimination disabled and mad people face every day in the United States. Settler ableism actively serves and reflects broader colonial values and aspirations. One way that happened was by imposing settler forms of medicine and knowledge practices. Culturally specific concepts of normality, fitness, and competency, for example, undergirded the criteria by which the BIA and Superintendent Hummer judged Elizabeth Faribault, from her verbal challenges to Sisseton Reservation agents in 1915, to Faribault’s and her family’s efforts to gain her release across her detention. The pathological labels varied widely in each instance (illustrating the malleability of diagnoses and diagnostic labels), but they all shared the foundational belief that Indigenous bodyminds were inherently deficient. In this cultural framework, ‘problems’ were located within individuals; solutions focused on the individuals and required “experts,” such as social workers, clergymen, and Western biomedical doctors. This self-affirming cycle validated continuous state-sponsored surveillance and containment. 

Eleven years into her detention, in September 1926, Elizabeth Faribault gave birth to a 5¾ pound girl whom she named Cora Winona. In his reports to the Commissioner, Hummer alleged that the child’s biological father was an institutionalized Diné man. We have no direct testimony from Elizabeth Faribault from this time. Archival sources detail that Elizabeth’s mother, Mary Alexis (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate), launched a vigorous campaign for the release of her daughter and grandchild. Describing Faribault’s pregnancy as an indication of her inherent defectiveness, Canton’s superintendent assured the BIA that it was in her best interest to remain institutionalized. As was common practice, the Bureau sided with the superintendent. Elizabeth Alexis Faribault and her daughter remained in the locked wards. 

We know little about the lives of mother and child over the next two years. In spring 1928, an asylum attendant found Elizabeth Faribault’s lifeless body on the floor in her ward. Acknowledging no prior illnesses, Superintendent Hummer informed the BIA that 46-year-old mother must have succumbed to “heart failure.” Faribault’s kin believe that “heartbreak” is a more apt description. Some have wondered whether physical or environmental violence was to blame. Cora Winona, then a toddler, remained in Canton’s locked wards. 


Kinship’s pivotal role in Native life and self-determination presents a different lens through which to understand diagnoses and institutionalizations in history. The combined measures of diagnoses and treatments (institutionalization) affected extended families and Native nations as well as the pathologized people themselves. 

As a primary mechanism of settler ableism, Western biomedical diagnoses pathologized Native kinship. BIA documents attest to this. Superintendent Harry Hummer regularly claimed that Elizabeth Faribault couldn’t be released because she was incompetent to take care of her children and mother. Facing mounting written challenges from Elizabeth’s Faribault’s husband insisting that she be returned to their home, Hummer invoked eugenic rhetoric to both deflate Jesse’s claim on Elizabeth and to fortify his own. In one report, Hummer described Jesse as “being either very ignorant or possibly imbecilic,” and warned the BIA that the couple might produce future generations of “defective” people dependent on the federal government. Implying that Jesse could not take care of his spouse, the superintendent contested his ability to look after Elizabeth. In other words: Jesse’s presumed defectiveness served as additional evidence to keep Elizabeth incarcerated. [Note: this is not exceptional. When family members of other institutionalized people sought their discharge, the superintendent regularly invoked rhetoric of defectiveness among kin outside the asylum to justify keeping many individuals on the inside.] 

Cora Winona Faribault also was kept for years at the Indian Asylum because of kinship: Superintendent Hummer insisted that the child remain at Canton, extending eugenic reasoning (‘her parents were deemed incompetent and therefore she almost certainly would be, too’). Across Asylum and BIA reports, references to mothers and daughters, siblings, and spouses appear regularly. Perceived familial connections contributed at least in part to the justifications reservation superintendents and others used to institutionalize Native people or to sustain their institutionalizations. 

According to archival records, more than fifty Indigenous nations had members stolen away to Canton, underscoring the compounded ramifications institutionalization had on kinship ties. For example, of the nearly four hundred people detained at the Indian Asylum, more than one hundred were members of the Great Sioux Nation, people who would be both immediate and extended relatives of Elizabeth and Cora Winona Faribault. One Sisseton-Wahpeton member, Nellie Kampeska, likely had known and even socialized with Elizabeth’s children before she was taken to Canton. On the inside, the two women claimed close bonds of kinship, providing care and support as well as other resources to sustain one another. Cora Winona Faribault was among the few infants to survive the Asylum, in large part because of kinship. In the wake of Elizabeth’s death, Lizzie Red Owl, a thirty-year-old Oglala Lakota woman from Pine Ridge, parented Cora, providing daily care and attempting to shield the little girl from institutional harms. 

Engaging with kinship and historical storytelling ultimately presents opportunities for collective survivance—a process and practice, according to Anishinaabe literary critic-author Gerald Vizenor, rooted in resistance, transformation, and survival. Survivance invokes mixing—of lived histories and messy human understandings. Central to these stories are kin relations. Mutual support, generosity and sharing, and a belief and practice of interdependence—defining qualities of many Indigenous nations— stem directly from kinship. Affinity, relationship, and collective experience drive its meaning. Affirming interdependence and belonging, kin relations nourish survivance. 

In the summer of 1930, the BIA transferred four-year-old Cora Winona Faribault to another institution created to contain Native people: Good Shepherd Mission Orphanage in Fort Defiance, Arizona (on the Navajo Nation reservation where her alleged father was an enrolled member). By the time she reached her 17th birthday, Cora Winona Faribault would be sheltered and confined by several more settler institutions, including a Navajo Methodist boarding school, white households where she was consigned to domestic service, and a home for unwed mothers. While locations and expressed mission of each place varied, comparatively little changed in Faribault’s closely scripted world. The mostly non-Native staff scrutinized her, judging the extent to which she met (or failed to meet) their expectations: what she wore, how she spoke and with whom, where she went and how she behaved. Echoing the compulsory service her mothers had earlier provided at Canton Asylum, Cora Winona performed domestic tasks for each of the places that housed her. 

The revelation in early 1945 that Cora Winona had become pregnant prompted a flurry of conversations with Good Shepherd representatives, and a new round of interventions. Mission and school administrators envisaged a singular, domestic path ahead of Faribault, pressing the young woman to disclose the likely father’s name and urging her to marry him or another willing suitor. Ultimately, none of these outcomes came to pass. Similar to her mother Elizabeth’s pregnancy in 1926, those supervising and surveilling Cora Winona used the logic of settler ableism to deem her pregnancy as evidence of her inherent defectiveness, considering her a problem that had to be solved. It went without question that more institutional intercession was needed. Guided by Mission representatives, Faribault was consigned to the Phoenix Florence Crittenton Home, part of a national network of residential care established by Christian evangelicals in the early1890s and endorsed by the US Congress. 

On May 27, 1945, Cora Winona Faribault gave birth to her first child, whom she named David Howard Faribault. The mother and son remained at the Phoenix Home for the next year. Not long after, staff advised Cora Winona to relinquish parental rights, accept a closed adoption, and allow David to be placed into a white family. As with thousands of other indigenous children adopted out between World War II and the late 1960s, Cora Winona Faribault’s eldest child had no further contact with his birth mother or the other children she later bore. 

Institutionalization & transinstitutionalization

As Elizabeth and Cora Winona Faribault lived it, locked wards of a psychiatric asylum, mission classrooms, reservations and allotments, and Crittenton’s dormitories all shared the underlying feature of involuntary containment and were experienced as parts of broader institutional interventions to dismantle Native families… eliminate and replace fundamental aspects of Indigenous life, including child rearing, education, and caregiving. They also contributed to larger efforts to contain, unravel, and remake or erase communities and individuals through land, military, legal, and religious policies. In this way, institutionalization not only has an impact on those removed but also ripples through families, communities, and nations as well as across generations. 

The experiences of Elizabeth and Cora Winona Faribault attest that histories of institutionalized people often are histories of people experiencing transinstitutionalization—the process of moving individuals from one variety of institution to another—as part of sustained containment, surveillance, and slow erasure. This is a type of settler colonial removal. The process, practice, and lived histories of dislocations and confinements are dynamic, interlocking, and far reaching 

Remembering For Faith O’Neil—Elizabeth Faribault’s granddaughter and Cora Winona’s daughter—kinship, institutionalization, and remembering reverberate across generations, regularly returning to the Indian Asylum. On May 17, 2015, O’Neil attended an annual honoring ritual, initiated in the 1980s by Lakota journalist-activist Harold Iron Shield. 

Slowly, the group made their way along lightly paved walkways towards the wooden fenced area. Adults and children nodded to one another, welcomed newcomers. A plaque facing inside identified the asylum cemetery. The registry of people listed reflected US government interpretations: English, Christianized names or English approximate translations of Indigenous names. According to the cemetery ledger, 121 known individuals have been buried in the asylum cemetery. Elizabeth Faribault is not among those listed. An archeological study from 2015 indicated that more people were interred there. Faith O’Neil wondered aloud whether her grandmother is nearby, present but unaccounted. Elizabeth Faribault is both missing and missed. 

For decades Faith O’Neil has sought answers from hard places: How did grandmother Elizabeth die? Where is she buried? What happened to her mother, Cora Winona, during her childhood at Canton and afterwards? In recent years O’Neil has scoured archives, historical publications, and the Sisseton Reservation, but her questions remain unresolved. Joining others to commemorate this incarcerated community has opened a river of stories: of grief, yearning, honoring, connection, hope, remembering, and survival. For O’Neil and many others, visits to Canton embody a story within many stories, stretching back to earlier moments in order to make meaning of the present. 

Storytelling by the people whom institutionalization has harmed underscores another truth: the violence of Canton Asylum was collective as well as individual. As numerous relatives of Canton’s institutionalized people have insisted: what happened to their kin at the Indian Asylum is inextricably tied to other forms of settler efforts to eliminate Indigenous people, lifeways, and histories, including the widespread abuses and deaths of boarding-school children, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and the disproportionately high rates of incarcerated Native people. Canton Asylum is one point along an arc of Native people’s history marked by living and dying and surviving amid settler colonialism. As Tohono O’odham healer-advocate Mary Garcia put it: “It’s all connected.” 

It is also unfolding. There is ongoing work to name, to heal, and to enable future tellings. The stories recounted by family members in Committed are part of broader efforts to counter erasure, to honor ancestors, to be self-determining people. As many Indigenous elders have underscored, once stories are shared, it is up to the readers and listeners to respond—to feel the stories, grasp them, and allow them to guide us into action. In the dreamscapes of many descendants, this telling-healing galvanizes Native communities and nations and imagines pathways into Indigenous futures. 

Thank you. 


1 I thank Eli Clare, TL Lewis, Alison Kafer, and Margaret Price for their access and sustainability examples. 

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