Indian Boarding School survivors testify of physical, emotional and sexual abuses as children in support of Sharice Davids’ Bill H.R. 5444

Rep. Sharice Davids: “It was an honor to testify today on my bipartisan legislation to continue our healing from the painful legacy of U.S. Indian Boarding School policies.”

Matthew War Bonnet, who is Sicangu Lakota and calls the Rosebud Sioux Reservation his home, was only six-years-old when he was forcibly taken to the Saint Francis Boarding School in 1952. 

He remembers arriving at the school, being stripped naked and scrubbed violently with stiff brushes, making his skin raw. He then had all of his hair cut off, and during his time at the school, he and the other children were beaten with straps and other instruments for speaking their Native languages.

“During my stay at the school, corporal punishment was common,” said Warbonnet, during his testimony on Thursday, May 12, 2022, at the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States in Washington. 

Warbonnet was one of several boarding school survivors who shared their stories and thoughts at a subcommittee hearing on Congressional bill H.R.5444 — a bill to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States.

The bill thus far has 56 House co-sponsors and the Senate version S.2907 has 22 co-sponsors.

“During my stay at the school, corporal punishment was common.”

Matthew War Bonnet, Sicangu Lakota

The congressional bill was introduced by Rep. Sharice Davids, Ho-Chunk, from Kansas’ third district.

Davids, along with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland are the two first Native American women who were elected to Congress.

According to the bill’s description, H.R.5444’s Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies must “investigate the impacts and ongoing effects of the Indian Boarding School Policies,” meaning the “federal policies under which American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children were forcibly removed from their family homes and placed in boarding schools.”

Davids, whose grandparents are both survivors of boarding schools, shared emotional testimony during her opening statements. 

“I would not be here today were it not for the resilience of my ancestors and those who came before me. The policies and assimilation practices of the United States had the sole purpose of culturally assimilating American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children in residential boarding schools across the country. Children were coerced and compelled to attend boarding schools away from their homes. Many children did not return.”    

Davids shared that there were fourteen boarding schools in her own state of Kansas, and one school in her own district had enrolled over 200 children. She also shared an emotional message about how her alma mater Haskell University, still had 100 known graves of Native children. 

Davids has worked with Senator Tom Cole, Choctaw, and has received considerable bipartisan support.

Stories of heartache, agony, loneliness and more

At Thursday’s subcommittee hearing, several witnesses shared their stories and thoughts.

James LaBelle, Sr. the first vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition a boarding school survivor and Vietnam Veteran, shared his tragic testimony.

“I have been waiting to tell this story for my entire life. I come to you as an assimilated man, as an acculturated man. While I received an education and met all of the economic standards of your culture, I lost my family. I cannot speak my language. I cannot do the traditional fishing and gathering I learned as a child.”

During his testimony, LaBelle spoke of his time at the Wrangell Institute and Mt. Edgecumbe in Alaska. LaBelle also spoke of being stripped naked as a very young boy and having to take showers in front of each other and the teachers. He was given a two-digit number to identify himself.

“Each of us was given a two-digit number marked on our government-issued clothing which corresponded with our names. If you forgot your number, you were spanked. Many children had difficult names, to begin with, so matrons found it easier to simply refer to them by number. The children who could not speak English did not know how to follow the rules and every time they opened their mouths they spoke in their own language. They were constantly beaten.”

He talked of getting sick due to the industrial canned foods along with other children who vomited and had diarrhea for weeks. His testimony also included being punished with a powerful ice-cold firehose and seeing a matron punch his friend so hard he was knocked unconscious and his cheek was split completely open.

“Each of us was given a two-digit number marked on our government-issued clothing which corresponded with our names. If you forgot your number, you were spanked. Many children had difficult names, to begin with, so matrons found it easier to simply refer to them by number.”

James LaBelle, Sr., Inupiaq, the first vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

He also recounted horrible sexual abuse in his testimony. 

“There was also sexual abuse. These schools were magnets for pedophiles. At lights out, Matrons would start molesting the youngest children in the lower bunks and bathrooms. There were two or three Matrons on duty, and we were an open field of candidates they could abuse at their whim. As these children reached their early teens, many of them began molesting the younger children as well. So began the cycle of sexual violence in the school. In the girl’s dorm, I can still remember girls going home as young as 11 years old and they were pregnant. One girl told me that she was a favorite of an administrator, and he would call her down from class and molest her every single day in his office.”

“In the girl’s dorm, I can still remember girls going home as young as 11 years old and they were pregnant. One girl told me that she was a favorite of an administrator, and he would call her down from class and molest her every single day in his office.”

James LaBelle, Sr., Inupiaq, the first vice president of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

“She admitted to me that she cut herself to relieve the pain and had maybe more than one personality. She passed away a few years ago now, and I think she is in a better place.”

Dr. Ramona Charette Klein is a respected member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and a boarding school survivor at Fort Totten Indian Boarding School.

“I remember seeing my mother cry as she stood and watched six of her eight children board the big, green bus that took us to Fort Totten Indian Boarding School. That image is forever imprinted in my mind and heart.”

Dr. Klein recounted her long hair being cut, which was then doused with kerosene as they assumed she had lice. She was given the nickname Butch because of her haircut. She also told a disturbing story of the matron’s son who walked the halls at night. Dr. Klein then put on a pair of oversized costume hands to show how big the son’s hand felt on her child-sized shape.

“He touched my body like no child’s body should be touched.”

She also remembered being so hungry her stomach ached and being abused by the Matron with a paddle that had a frightening reputation among the children.

“I remember being hit by the matron with a big green paddle that everyone called “The Board of Education,” while I knelt on either a broomstick or a mop stick with my arms outstretched from my body. I remember thinking, “You will not get the best of me.” I was determined not to cry. I would not cry. And I didn’t cry for many years after I left Fort Totten. Today I would say, “You will not take my dignity.”  

Eventually, Dr. Klein says she became a teacher, to give the type of education that demonstrated empathy, support and encouragement as well as the seven teachings of the Anishinaabe—honesty, humility, truth, wisdom, love, respect, and bravery. 

“You will not take my dignity.”

Dr. Ramona Charette Klein, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians

Deborah Parker, a citizen of the Tulalip Tribes and the Chief Executive Officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) also shared her testimony. 

Parker cited that NABS had been actively working with the Department of the Interior and collaborated in identifying the number of Indian boarding schools in the United States.

“Our recent collaborative work with the US Department of the Interior has identified 408 federally-funded and supported US Indian boarding schools, as well as 89 additional boarding schools that received no federal funding at all. Over nearly two centuries, these 497 boarding schools operated as a broad system with a singular goal aimed at our children. Between the 1800s and the 1970s, the federal government removed thousands of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children from our homes and families, and placed them in assimilative institutions designed to strip us of our languages, identities, and cultures.”

Parker noted that after Canada’s efforts to expose residential schools, the U.S. government needed to make a similar effort.

“Shortly after Canada launched the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, leaders from the United States and Canada came together to discuss the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the need for such a process in the United States.”  

“NABS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit and we support a community of thousands of boarding school survivors and descendants. On behalf of these relatives, as well as 54 endorsements and 26 resolutions from Tribes and national organizations, I am here to strongly support HR 5444,” said Parker.

Ben Barnes, Chief of the Shawnee Tribe shared how the effort was a personal one for him as well as the other witnesses.

“As Chief of the Shawnee Tribe, the issue of Indian boarding schools is extremely personal for me. Over 150 years ago, Shawnee children were sent to the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School in what is now Fairway, Kansas.”

“In many ways, that school, which still stands today, is a memorial to the struggles and perseverance of the Shawnee people. But like other sites, its history remains incomplete. We know that the residents there were malnourished and mistreated. We can still see the carvings left in the windowless attic where children were forced to sleep in hot summers and cold winters. We know the school was closed in 1862 due to abuse and mismanagement. But we don’t know the full extent of what went on because, in large part, we don’t know the stories of the kids that went there, including the names of those that died or the locations of their burial sites.”

“Finding answers and honoring these children’s stories is important to the Shawnee Tribe. We have engaged historians and researchers to assemble all available information regarding the Shawnee Indian Manual Labor Boarding School. We have found that some records are seemingly lost forever. We have also discovered that crucial parts of the story are inaccessible within government archives or exist within the private collections of the religious institutions that operated some of these schools.”

“As time continues to pass, we will lose the testimonies of survivors and more documents will become misplaced. That is the importance of H.R. 5444. Creating a mandated commission empowered to locate every available record and ensure this history is preserved and made available for examination.”

Dr. Janine Pease, the Founding President and Faculty Member of Little Big Horn College, a member of the Crow Nation and descendant of a boarding school attendee, says her Hidatsa great grandmother Sarah Walker Pease attended the Hampton Institute. 

“She went there with 14 students, and while she was there, seven of those 14 perished and are buried there. 

“Sarah’s son Bennie was made to go to the Crow Agency School at the tender age of only four years. He was beaten so badly, that he died at the school. We decorate his grave every Memorial Day.”

Dr. Pease also shared a heartbreaking story of how a grandmother had fled with her grandson from the authorities. They were eventually caught and the grandmother stayed in a tent outside the school from August to December, watching her grandson.

“Typically we call the Crow Agency School ‘the mean place.’”

VIDEO: SCIP Hybrid Legislative Hearing – May 12, 2022
(Recess at 0:50:13 – Restart Testimony at 03:18:20) 

After the testimonies

The honorable Teresa Leger Fernández, who had presided over the hearing thanked the witnesses for sharing. She noted that not only were the stories difficult and painful, but the telling of the stories was painful.

“I recognize that all of you that shared who are survivors, that even telling the story is painful. So I recognize that pain, and I thank you for being willing to go over that pain again and again — so that we know what happened, and we can move forward. For that I offer my gratitude,” said Fernández.

Questions at the end of the testimony included thoughts on obtaining school records which have been extremely difficult to obtain according to Parker, and LaBelle, Sr. recounting serious aspects of abuse faced by himself, his siblings and friends.

Representative Darren Soto said “Thank you all for being here & for your stories. These stories matter, as tragic & as hard as they are to hear. This hearing enshrines them into our shared history.”

Arizona congressman Raul M. Grijalva also told his own experience. “This truth-seeking is not about assessing punishment, it is about recognizing that this chapter in our history is something we cannot hide from.”

Follow the bill’s progress here:
https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/5444

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Visit the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition bill page here: https://boardingschoolhealing.org/truthcommission/


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Editor and co-founder of Native Viewpoint, Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk

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