(Washington) Matthew War Bonnet was only six years old when he was sent to a federally funded boarding school for Indigenous children.
Beaten, starved and cut off from the culture of his Lakota tribe, he lived there for eight “very painful and traumatic” years, he told the US Congress on Thursday during a hearing to create a commission to investigation into the matter.
His testimony, and that of other victims of this system of residential schools for indigenous children funded by the federal state, comes the day after the publication of a very critical report by the Department of the Interior, in charge of the United States. Indian affairs.
These thousands of schools had, between 1819 and 1969, “a double objective of cultural assimilation and despoliation of the territories of the indigenous peoples through the forced removal of their children”, asserted the department in a press release.
Matthew War Bonnet and his nine siblings were all sent to the same school, Saint Francis Boarding School, in South Dakota, in the north of the country.
“Corporal punishment was common. The priests often got impatient and punished us by hitting us with a leather thong or a willow branch,” or by locking them outside in very cold weather, he described to the parliamentarians.
“One day I got into trouble and my punishment was to be separated from the other children for ten days and given only bread and water for all my food. »
Students were forced to speak English and it became “difficult to speak with my parents in our Lakota language,” he said.
The state and religious institutions “must be held accountable for what happened in these schools,” he said.
“I’ve waited my whole life to tell this story,” Jim Labelle, who was born in Alaska to a white father and an Inupiaq mother, also told the hearing.
“We have lost our ability to speak our language and practice our traditional hunting, fishing and gathering,” he said. “After ten years (spent in these establishments, editor’s note), I no longer knew who I was as an Aboriginal person. »
“They never told us who we were,” he lamented. “I learned American history, world history, math, science and English, but never who I was as an Inupiaq. »
He too said he had suffered cruel punishments, notably recounting having been sprayed with icy water by a fire hose.
“There were also sexual assaults,” he said. “These schools were pedophile hideouts. »
According to the report released Wednesday, at least 500 children from Native, Alaskan and Hawaiian minorities died in these residential schools.
Authorities expect continued research to uncover “thousands or tens of thousands” of Indigenous child deaths at these residential schools.
Canada has also been dealing since 2021 with its own history of abuse in residential schools for indigenous children run by the Catholic Church.
Thousands never came back. In 2015, a national commission of inquiry called this system “cultural genocide”.