TULALIP — Often during morning mass, “a handful of kids” would go limp and hit the church floor, passed out from hunger.
“We were always hungry,” said Matthew War Bonnet Jr., 76, of Snohomish, a survivor of the St. Francis Indian School in South Dakota. “That’s what I remember — being hungry all the time.”
Sometimes, he said, you could get a full meal from the priests’ quarters if you washed their dishes.
Otherwise, the food mostly consisted of a yellow or white “mush,” depending on the meal. The best eating came on Sundays: cornflakes in the morning and bologna sandwiches for lunch. War Bonnet remembers bologna being the only meat at school.
In 1952, authorities took War Bonnet to the small Catholic boarding school on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, in the heart of the Great Plains. He was 6.
Sitting in the Hibulb Cultural Center seven decades later, he recited a line from the Hail Mary in Latin: “Dominus tecum …” He trailed off.
War Bonnet, of the Sicangu Lakota People, spoke Lakota at home. In school, he learned Latin, English and Spanish. He hasn’t set foot in a Catholic church since his eight years at St. Francis. But those pieces of Latin prayer are ingrained in him, like the abuse and neglect he suffered.
The school was one of 30 that the government funded or operated in South Dakota from 1819 to 1969. St. Francis opened in 1886. It operated under a federal contract from 1895 to 1932, receiving government funding and separating children from their families, land and culture with the purported goal of education.
War Bonnet’s siblings also attended St. Francis. The school wouldn’t allow them to see each other. He recalled catching glimpses 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 harvesting. Saturday was “payday.”
“I got two candy bars,” War Bonnet recalled. Then students got to watch a movie, separated into groups of boys and girls.
Days dragged on. Students woke at 5:30 a.m. and marched to church. Mass was nearly an hour, or longer on Sundays. The school day started with catechism, then academics: math, history, geography. Then back to church for the benediction.
On Thursdays, the children confessed their sins. Adults forced those who didn’t participate in the sacrament to stay outside, enduring temperatures sometimes well below freezing.
Despite the exhausting work, children often found it impossible to sleep. They could hear others crying for their mothers. Priests lashed them with a horse-and-buggy whip if they wet the bed. Sometimes they shocked the kids with a cattle prod.
There was one big bathroom in the boys’ dorm, War Bonnet said. Sometimes, the priest would be in there.
“So a lot of kids would soil the bed,” he said. “Then they’d be punished for that. The (priests) would take their strap and strap them for that.”
But a strapping was better than going into the bathroom with the priest, War Bonnet said.
“A lot of times, these decisions were easy to make — you’d stay in bed,” War Bonnet said.
Corporal punishment was common for minor offenses. Priests strapped boys for rolling a marble through the dorms, for speaking Lakota and, often, for inexplicable reasons.
“One time, 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 was abusing him in other ways.”
War Bonnet hadn’t been ready to share some of his stories with his kids, wife and siblings. But he found the strength to testify about the trauma before a U.S. House committee in May, upon the release a long-awaited U.S. Department of the Interior report on Native American boarding schools.
Priests starved War Bonnet as punishment — a memory he had almost forgotten, but a sister reminded him of it many years later. He was forced to sit alone at every meal for 10 days straight, and the priests only gave him a glass of water and a piece of bread with every meal. He can’t recall why.
“Whatever it was I had done, it must have been pretty bad,” War Bonnet said.
His favorite memories from his school-age years 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 highest tree, sit up there and let the breeze rock you back and forth,” War Bonnet said, smiling.
“Then,” he said, “you had to go back to the school.”