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English professors receive first DSU innovation grant

December 13, 2016

English professors are good at recognizing interesting stories, ones that are worth the telling.

DSU English faculty Dr. John Nelson (left) and Dr. Stacey Berry pose by artwork inspired by the Hiawatha Indian Asylum. Dakota State University English professor Dr. John Nelson found such a story at an art exhibit this spring.

“I Have the Honor to Report” was a show held early in 2016 at the Center for Western Studies, a museum and art gallery on the campus of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. It featured local artists’ works depicting life at an insane asylum for Native Americans. The Hiawatha Insane Asylum was located in Canton, S.D., open from 1903 to 1934.

Some of the artworks featured official government communications that began with those words, “I have the honor to report.”

“I was bowled over by the presentation of the various artworks,” Nelson said, “and I had the idea right away that these (documents) should be made available and searchable.”

His colleague Dr. Stacey Berry, agreed that it would be a “great project.”

A document from the nation’s only Native American insane asylum is featured on this piece of artwork, created collaboratively by Blood Run Artists of the Big Sioux, Jerry Fogg, Chad Nelson, Chris Francis, and DSU instructor Angela Behrends. Two DSU English professors, Dr. John Nelson and Dr. Stacey Berry, hope to seek out and digitize more documents. An innovative mini-grant program from Dakota State is helping the two begin the project. “Working with documents … is something that inspires us as English professors,” she said. Some of the already-available documents regarding the asylum are inspiring, “just an amazing South Dakota story.”

But it is also “a South Dakota story with national impact,” Nelson added, because it was the only insane asylum in the country for Native Americans. Minority groups were not sent to similar institutions where white people went, he added. An estimated 121 Natives from tribes across the country were buried in unmarked graves at the asylum site, which is now a golf course.

Besides some paperwork held by a group called the Keepers of the Canton Native Asylum Story, there is more documentation in other locations across the country, in Pierre, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and New York state.

With the papers scattered, “How can we use this historical information to tell stories?” Berry said. Compiling the documents would take time, and incur travel and digitizing expenses.

Enter the DSU Innovation Mini-grant program.

This is a new funding project that DSU President José-Marie Griffiths and interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Richard Hanson have been working on.

The grant program, primarily for faculty, “provides a small amount of seed money … to be able to do interesting things,” Hanson said, things the professors and instructors wouldn’t have the opportunity to do within the scope of their regular teaching assignments.

The budget for the grants comes from general obligation funds, he added. Other universities, such as Augustana and Bemidji State have similar programs.

With the DSU grants, the word “innovation,” is stressed, Hanson said, but can be innovation with “teaching, thinking, or as with this grant, an innovative approach to a very relevant piece of South Dakota history.”

The mini-grant of $1,580 was “very helpful for us to get started,” said Berry.

The two have since received another grant from the South Dakota Humanities Council, a boon to the project because Nelson feels “this is just the tip of the iceberg.” It will take a long time to digitize the thousands and thousands of documents, and make them fully searchable, he added.

Nelson and Berry plan to begin their project working at the South Dakota Historical Society in Pierre this month, and to present their findings to the community in the spring of 2017.

“We don’t know what we’re going to find,” in the documents, Berry said, “and that’s very exciting.”

They also think that the DSU mini-grant program is exciting.

“There are a lot of times people have ideas and they can make their time available,” Nelson said, “but it can be difficult to get both the time and the funding to take on these kinds of things.”

“Even just the call for the grant can get you thinking about ideas,” Berry said, “which just creates a richer community in general.”

“(Projects like these) are important to our community,” Hanson said, helping provide an understanding of ourselves through what really went on in history. 

“These are the sorts of things higher education needs to investigate and be part of,” he added, as “they (give) us a window into ourselves, filtered by history.”

“Higher ed should be doing more of that.”