Wednesday, February 18, 2015

INDIAN HOSPITALS--FOR INDIANS ONLY--PART 2--by Cheryl Pierson



Welcome to “Part 2” of my “For Indians Only” series. The last time we talked about this topic, we talked about the boarding schools our country set up for Indian children to help “assimilate” them into white American society. It was a huge failure. Part 2, Indian Hospitals, is a true horror story from our nation’s past.

I want to talk a bit about a specific hospital in my state of Oklahoma. I’m sure there were many others like this, scattered around, but this is one I have a little personal knowledge of.
Located in Talihina, Oklahoma, in a secluded area on top of a large hill in the Kiamichi Mountains, the Harper Building is one of several from the former Eastern Oklahoma Tuberculosis Sanitarium. It was built in the early part of the 1900’s, specifically to house Indians (Choctaws and Chickasaws) with tuberculosis.

Here’s a little of the article that appeared at the time in our largest state newspaper, The Daily Oklahoman, in explanation of why it was being built. (Rootsweb Ancestry)—partial article

The Daily Oklahoman
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
December 22, 1917 p 4
Sanitarium Is Provided
Six years ago the Choctaws, noting the increase of tuberculosis among them, took the first step toward establishing a tubercular sanitarium, the report says. On Dec. 14, 1911, the last Choctaw council passed an act appropriating $50,000 for such a sanitarium. This act was supplemented by a later act of congress, approving the appropriation, but it was not until the present year that the institution, located near Talihina, was completed. The hospital as established is doing a general hospital work, however, and no special provision has been made for the care of tubercular patients.
Therefore, the following detailed recommendations were made:

First: The Talihina Sanitarium - This sanitarium should be devoted particularly, if not exclusively, to tuberculosis. It offers the principal and immediate remedy for existing conditions. It is centrally located in the home country of the Indians, and if it is properly conducted Indian patients may be induced to reside there, where they will be properly clothed and fed and will receive the medical and surgical attention they need. They can be provided with religious services, and open air classes can be carried on for children so that they may not grow up in ignorance.


Jump to the next century, ca. 2008-2009. I was teaching a novel writing class, a small class with only 8-10 students. One of those students was an incredible Choctaw Indian lady, who I will call Emma. She told the class that she was there to learn how to write her life story. And she proceeded to tell us some of the stories of her life.

She’d gone to an orphanage at a young age, her single mother unable to feed her and her younger brother. When she reached her teen years, perhaps 16 or 17, she was sent from the orphanage to the Talihina Indian Tuberculosis Hospital. Young Emma made friends—most of the patients there were children and teens, but there were some adults. But because of the nature of the illness, Emma lost many of her friends to death.

She told of a particular instance, after the death of one of her good friends, when the janitor, who also helped dig graves, saw her in the hallway. He gave her a slow grin and pointed a bony finger at her. “When will I be coming for YOU?” he asked.

Even worse, experiments were conducted on the patients there at the Indian hospital. Why? Because there was a white tuberculosis hospital in the same area (my dad was a patient there a few years later) and they needed to find out the best treatments to use…so the Indians were the ones they experimented on. Emma told the story of going in and having them collapse her lung—with no anesthesia—when she was around 17 or so.

The hospital still stands, but is said to be haunted by all the children and others who died there. The government now owns the property, and it’s run by Oklahoma Veteran Affairs. These pictures are of the Harper Building where the Indian hospital was, and is being considered for demolition at this time.

18 comments:

  1. Excellent post. And to think that these horrors were committed toward Natives during OUR lifetimes. I would love to read Emma's story someday.

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    1. I shudder when I remember the stories she told, Vonn. I really do hope she'll finish her book. I don't think there's anything else like it-- a first hand account of being sent to an Indian orphanage, and then transferred to an Indian hospital. The happy ending is that she left the hospital, married and had a family, and is still living! She's an amazing person.
      Cheryl

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    2. I really enjoyed this post along with the photos. I also hope to read Emma's story.

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    3. Hi Ruth! Thanks for stopping by today and reading. If she ever gets it finished, I'll be sure and let everyone know.
      Cheryl

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  2. I worked at several of the IHS (Indian Health Services) Hospitals all across the country in the 90's and early 2000's; doing environmental surveys and supervising remediation projects (lead and asbestos). What amazed me was that for the most part, the staff at these hospitals was superb.

    I also found that to be true at the facility in Kayenta, AZ; on the Navajo Reservation where I was injured while on the job. What was depressing however, was the number of alcohol related problems on a "dry" reservation, along with the staggering amount of people suffering from diabetes. The most heartbreaking scene while I was being treated at the hospital (fractured vertebrae) was a Navajo woman in her 80's dealing with her adult son who -- in his desperate need for a drink -- had consumed several bottles of aftershave. Her keening could be heard through the entire ER, while her son begged for someone to kill him.

    The hospitals have come a long way from what they were; terrible places where people were warehoused and often remained until they died.

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    1. Oh, Kit! That had to be so hard to listen to...and that poor mother--we all know how we ache for our children when they're in physical or emotional pain. She must have been going through hell.

      Yes, times have changed--thank GOD! It's hard to believe this went on in our "civilized" world of the 20th century, though.

      Cheryl

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  3. I suppose it was easier to turn a blind eye to the problem rather than fix it. Shameful.
    Thanks for bringing this to light Cheryl.

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    1. Yes, I think that's what happened, too, Jerry, in so many cases with the Indian tribes. I think the worst thing about this is how they experimented on the Indians to find cures for the whites. Reminds me of Nazi Germany.

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  4. Oh the 'horrors' we impose on others in search of cures. It is a sad commentary on people that to save one, they harm many. Thank you for sharing a part of history we don't often look at. Doris

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    1. Hi Doris, and thanks for coming by today. I know these posts are hard to read and think about, but we can't ever NOT think about them for fear of forgetting what happened--it's that way with so much of our history--I know you know that, being the historian that you are. Thanks so much for coming by and commenting.
      Cheryl

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  5. From the time I was young, I never understood how our government could mistreat and ignore the Native American population the way it has. That we have never corrected our misdeeds even to this day is disgraceful.

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    1. They get away with it, and they always have, so they always will. It just that simple. People only do what they can get away with--the government is a bully. I think it's just awful they conducted this experimentation on children. I just shudder to think what those little souls must have experienced.

      Thanks for coming by, JD!
      Cheryl

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  10. The Harper Building (pictured) is not on the campus of the old Public Health Service Indian Hospital in Talihina. The Harper Building was on the campus of the Eastern Oklahoma State Sanitorium, which was a TB hospital. The Indian hospital (which treated Indian TB patients as well as those with other illnesses) and the EOSS were several miles apart from each other. People sometimes get these two separate institutions confused.

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