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Native American school survivors tell Congress of 'traumatic' years

By Stacy Revere

The entrance to the former Genoa US Indian School in Nebraska, where researchers say at least 87 Native American children died /GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/Getty Images via AFP/File

Matthew War Bonnet was just six years old when he was shipped off to a US government-funded boarding school in South Dakota for Native American children.

Beaten, starved, stripped of his Lakota language and culture, the next eight years were "very painful and traumatic," War Bonnet told a House hearing on Thursday on a bill to create a "Truth and Healing Commission" on the boarding schools.

The 76-year-old War Bonnet was one of several Native American survivors of federally funded boarding schools to testify about their harrowing experiences at the institutions.

The hearing came a day after the Department of the Interior issued a report about the treatment of children in the Federal Indian boarding school system between 1819 and 1969.

War Bonnet and his nine other siblings attended the same school, the Saint Francis Boarding School in South Dakota.

"It is hard to speak about it without making myself feel bad by bringing up these memories," he told the House subcommittee.

"Corporal punishment was common. The priests would often get impatient and discipline us by hitting us with a leather strap or a willow stick," War Bonnet said.

"Another way the priests disciplined us was to lock us out of the school during the cold weather," he said. "One time I got in trouble and my punishment was for 10 days I was separated from the other kids and given only bread and water to eat."

War Bonnet said the children were forced to speak English and it became "difficult to speak with my parents in our Lakota language."

"The government and the churches need to be held accountable for what happened at these schools," he said.

- 'My entire life' -

Jim Labelle, who was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, to a white father and an Inupiaq mother, also testified before the House subcommittee.

"I have been waiting to tell this story for my entire life," the 75-year-old Labelle said.

"We lost our ability to speak our language and do our traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering," he said. "At the end of 10 years, I did not know who I was as a Native person.

"I didn't know who I was because they never told us who we were," Labelle said. "I learned American history, world history, math, science, and English, but never who I was as an Inupiaq person."

Labelle also recounted harsh punishment including being sprayed with icy water from a firehose.

"There was also sexual abuse," he said. "These schools were magnets for pedophiles."

According to the Interior Department report, more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children died in the boarding schools.

"The Department expects that continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands," the report said.

A statement released along with the report said the school system had the "twin goals of cultural assimilation and territorial dispossession of Indigenous peoples through the forced removal and relocation of their children."

Canada is also grappling with the legacy of abuse and neglect at its schools for Indigenous children.

Thousands died at the schools, and many were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, according to an investigative commission that concluded the Canadian government engaged in "cultural genocide."


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