The Argus Leader’s stories on May 5 about the Hiawatha Indian Insane Asylum at Canton struck a chord with a Florida woman who remembers her youth spent visiting at the center long ago.
Clarice Juel Mikkelson lives in Fort Meyers, Fla., today. But 80 years ago, she lived in Canton and resided next door to a couple, Clifford and Polly Vickerman, who worked at the asylum.
He was in maintenance. She worked in the kitchen. It wasn’t unusual for the Vickermans to take their little 11-year-old neighbor to holiday parties and other events at the institution where townsfolk could mingle with the patients.
Though promoted as the only insane asylum for tribal people in the country, many of its patients had no mental health issues at all.
Some were simply thorns in the side of a white society that wanted to assimilate the Native Americans and grew frustrated when they resisted. Others had epilepsy and other medical conditions with no connection to mental health concerns whatsoever.
One of the patients young Clarice befriended was a woman from the Pine Ridge Reservation named Lizzie Red Owl. “She was not insane,” Mildred Juel of Brookings said of Red Owl, recounting stories told her by her sister-in-law, Clarice.
“Lizzie had gone to Carlisle College in Pennsylvania,” Mildred Juel said. “Clarice had no idea why she was there in the asylum. If Lizzie had seizures, maybe they didn’t know how to handle her. But Clarice didn’t ask questions.”
As she recounted those days to her relatives, Clarice did recall a Christmastime event when Lizzie Red Owl was asked to be a caller at a square dance. Shy and reticent, she only agreed to do so when her young friend said she would stand beside her.
During the course of their friendship, Lizzie made four dolls for Clarice. The largest was crafted from rough fabric in a traditional Indian garb.
There were also beaded moccasins that were made from chamois skin purchased in town and brought to Lizzie to use.
Lizzie gave the little girl a colored painting of an unnamed chief as well and placed it in the frame that originally held her college diploma.
She also braided three cotton rag rugs that she gave to Clarice’s mother to use in the Juels’ bedrooms until they wore out.
In time, Clarice turned the four dolls over to the Canton Library, as well as the image of the Indian chief and a note that Red Owl wrote to her young friend. They remain there today.
At 92, Clarice tells family members that she still remembers those days vividly. And there are questions that remain.
“We have no knowledge of what happened to Lizzie Red Owl, whether she was sent to Washington (D.C.) or to the reservation or perhaps was buried under a different name,” Mildred Juel said. “I think (Clarice) has always wondered about that.”