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Digital humanities project helps preserve Hiawatha Insane Asylum history

May 2, 2019

Six Dakota State University students assisted two English professors, Dr. John Nelson and Dr. Stacey Berry, with digitally archiving documents from the Hiawatha Insane Asylum.

During the years it was open, 1903 to 1934, 391 Native Americans were admitted to the Canton, S.D. facility.

“The goal of the project was to essentially create a more easily accessible location for the documents,” said Layne Meyers, a network and security administration senior from Viborg, S.D.

Meyers, Jack Donovan, Janell Healy, Nathan Kramer, Dylan Terry, and Matthew Steckleberg worked together to create a way for the documents and reports from the asylum to be easily accessible in an online database. The six students are tech fellows for Dr. Tom Halverson, associate professor of computer science, who volunteered for the project.

“This project drew my interest due to the automation aspect,” said Nathan Kramer, a junior cyber operations major from Sioux Falls, S.D. Kramer assisted with developing an automation for the transcription process and organizing and compiling the documents.

“John and I have the passion and knowledge and interest in getting these documents related to the asylum story out, but for us to do that as individual scholars – that work could take us years,” said Dr. Stacey Berry, associate professor of English for New Media.

“This shows different projects can be interdisciplinary and take a lot of moving parts and a lot of different skills,” Meyers said.

Dr. John Nelson, professor of English, started the project after being inspired by the art exhibit “I have the Honor to Report” held in 2016 at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. The exhibit featured artists’ work depicting life at the insane asylum for Native Americans. The asylum was the only one in the country for Native Americans.  

“The documents were available if you were willing to travel and knew how to get to them,” Nelson explained. This project will help others gain access by creating a digital archive of the documents in text format.

Nelson and Berry started the project by taking thousands of photos of documents; the students then created code to convert the images to a text file.

Donovan used Google Drive to automate the process of changing the pictures of the documents into text. “It takes maybe 10 minutes to convert 60 images,” he said.

Donovan made this program available on his GitHub, a software development platform, page so other people can use it if they have images they would like converted to text with a little modification.

“It’s a good free resource,” Donovan said. Donovan is a senior computer science major from Sioux Falls, S.D.

“Open source software is a good option for students or young professionals,” Meyers added.

The project topic was interesting to participants, with several group members acknowledging they had never heard of the Hiawatha Insane Asylum. “This was in South Dakota and I didn’t even know it existed,” Healy said. Healy is a senior computer science and math for information systems major from Hartford, S.D.