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“Disorderly Pasts” centers on life stories from South Dakota’s Canton Asylum, a federal psychiatric hospital for American Indians. Between 1902 and 1933, the Asylum detained nearly four hundred Indigenous men, women, and children from more than fifty Native nations. Focusing especially on the experiences of Menominee people collectively stolen from their homes in Wisconsin to Canton in November 1917, this article exposes contested understandings of kin, diagnoses, and remembering. Complex relationships between the three concepts also emerge: medical diagnoses were used to undermine Indigenous kinship, and they complicate remembering. At the same time, remembering—recalling and repopulating the past—offers a way to challenge pathological diagnoses and affirm Native self-determination.
Motivated by disorder, the desire to “disrupt the systematic functioning or neat arrangement of” historical work, this project unsettles the projected objectivity and commonsense logic of U.S. medical diagnoses and institutionalization. It brings to light the violent entanglement of settler colonialism, racism, ableism, and patriarchy and their impact on Native sovereignty, Indigenous kinship, and remembering. Collaborating with relatives of those incarcerated at Canton, and drawing on decolonizing and disability studies methodologies, this work seeks to generate meaningful historical knowledge and new theoretical strategies and perspectives.