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.
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.