Survival Story: Snohomic male, 76, living with boarding school trauma | Wender Mind Kids

Survival Story: Snohomic male, 76, living with boarding school trauma

TULALIP – During morning mass, “a handful of children” often went limp and passed out on the church floor from hunger.

“We were always hungry,” said Matthew War Bonnet Jr., 76, of Snohomish, a survivor at St. Francis Indian School in South Dakota. “That’s what I remember – being hungry all the time.”

Sometimes, he said, one could get a full meal in the priest’s chambers by washing their dishes.

Otherwise, depending on the meal, the food mostly consisted of yellow or white “porridge”. Sunday was the best food: cornflakes in the morning and bologna sandwiches for lunch. War Bonnet recalls that the only meat War Bonnet served the school was cured meats.

In 1952, authorities placed War Bonnet in the small Catholic boarding school on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in the heart of the Great Plains. he was 6

Seven decades later, he sat in the cultural center of Hibulb and recited a line from the Ave Maria in Latin: “Dominus tecum…” He fell silent.

War Bonnet of the Sicangu-Lakota people spoke Lakota at home. At school he learned Latin, English and Spanish. He has not set foot in a Catholic church in eight years with St. Francis. But these pieces of Latin prayer are ingrained in him, like the abuse and neglect he has endured.

The school was one of 30 sponsored or operated by the South Dakota government from 1819 to 1969. St. Francis opened in 1886. It operated from 1895 to 1932 under a federal treaty, received government funding, and separated children from their families, land, and culture with the ostensible goal of education.

The War Bonnet siblings also attended St. Francis. The school did not allow them to see each other. He remembers getting a glimpse of his sisters on “payday.”

The school assigned jobs to children as young as 5 – shoemaking, laundry, cooking, baking, tilling the soil, planting potatoes and onions, harvesting. Saturday was “pay day”.

“I got two candy bars,” War Bonnet recalled. Then the students were allowed to watch a film, divided into boys and girls groups.

days dragged on. The students woke up at 5:30 am and marched to the church. The mass lasted almost an hour, longer on Sundays. The school day began with catechism, then academics: mathematics, history, geography. Then back to the church for the blessing.

On Thursday, the children confessed their sins. Adults forced those who did not partake of the sacrament to stay outside and endure temperatures sometimes well below freezing.

Despite the strenuous work, children often could not sleep. They could hear others crying for their mothers. Priests would whip them with horse-drawn carriage whips, a rope, or shock them with cattle prods if they wet the bed.

There was a large bathroom in the boys’ dormitory, War Bonnet said. Sometimes the priest was in there.

“So a lot of kids would soil the bed,” he said. “Then they would be punished for it. The (priests) would take her belt and buckle her in return.”

But a strap-on is better than going to the bathroom with the priest, War Bonnet said.

“Often these decisions were easy to make – you stayed in bed,” War Bonnet said.

Letters from priests to Catholic superiors documented sexual abuse at boarding schools in South Dakota, including the Rosebud Reservation.

Corporal punishment was common. The students were often beaten. Priests strapped them down for rolling a marble through the boys’ dormitories, because they spoke Lakota, and often for inexplicable reasons.

“Once a priest threw my older brother, Joe War Bonnet, down a flight of stairs and broke his arm,” War Bonnet said. “I think that priest abused him in other ways.”

War Bonnet isn’t ready to share some of those stories with his kids, wife, and siblings. But he found the strength to testify about the trauma before a US House committee in May when a long-awaited US Interior Department report on Native American boarding schools was released.

Priests starved War Bonnet as punishment – a memory he had almost forgotten but a sister reminded him of many years later. He was forced to sit alone at every meal for 10 days, and the priests gave him only a glass of water and a piece of bread at every meal. He can’t remember why.

“Whatever I did, it must have been pretty bad,” War Bonnet said.

His favorite memories from his school days are having free time on an occasional Saturday or going home for two months every summer. Those were “happy times”.

He could see his parents. He could eat. He could be a kid and “climb the tallest tree and sit up there and let the breeze rock him back and forth,” War Bonnet said with a smile.

“Then,” he said, “you have to go back to school.”

Isabella Breda: 425-339-3192;; Twitter: @BredIsabella.

Read the rest of this series, Tulalip’s stolen children.