Matthew War Bonnet was six years old when he entered St. Francis’ Indigenous Re-education Boarding School in South Dakota. He still finds it difficult to talk about his experiences at Catholic school. “As soon as they arrived, the pastor put all the little children in a bathtub together. First he scrubbed us with a stiff brush until the skin was sore and open. Then our hair was cut off,” the 75-year-old reported to the subcommittee on indigenous peoples in the House of Representatives.

Bonnet belongs to the Sicangu Lakota tribe. “Even my parents went to St. Francis School as children. They never wanted to talk about it either.” Initial investigations into the just-released US government investigation report confirm the worst fears about what might have happened inside the walls. So far, 500 children’s bodies have been found on the grounds of former boarding schools for the re-education of indigenous students. However, historians estimate the number of unreported children who died at up to 40,000.

Between 1869 and 1969, hundreds of thousands of children were taken away from their indigenous families. In 1900 there were 20,000 children in schools – in 1925 three times as many. There were 408 boarding schools in 37 states, mostly in Oklahoma, Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona and New Mexico.

The government commissioned the Catholic and Protestant churches to set up the re-education boarding schools. Their goal: the children of Native Americans should become Christian Americans.

Therefore, the indigenous children had to give up their identity as soon as they arrived at the boarding schools. Educators cut off their long hair, exchanged their traditional clothes for western ones and gave each child a new, English name. In any case, from now on the students were only allowed to speak English – their own tribal languages ​​were strictly forbidden.

Those who broke the rules were often severely punished: physical and sexual abuse, isolation, handcuffs, whips and food deprivation were commonplace, survivors report. Older students were also often forced to punish smaller children – the youngest being four years old.

Bonnet spent eight years at the boarding school. Corporal punishment was the rule, he says: “There was a cattle whip and one called ‘Jesus rope’. Many strands protruded from it. The priests often locked us out in the cold as punishment. At night you could hear a lot of children crying.”

His nine siblings were also in the boarding school. “A minister once threw my older brother Joe down the stairs. He broke his arm in the process. I think he also abused him in other ways.” He further recalls: “Once I was locked away from everyone else for ten days and was only given water and bread. I don’t even remember what I did back then.”

Many children were forced into these schools without their parents’ consent. “Physical, sexual and emotional abuse was widespread,” says a preliminary, first part of the investigation report. The other allegations: overcrowding in schools, inadequate nutrition and inadequate medical care.

In addition to military drills, the children also had to do hours of hard physical work every day: they were not only responsible for cleaning and cooking in the schools, but were also used for field work and for the expansion of the American railway network. Many children died under the often inhumane conditions.

Their bodies were thrown into mass graves on the boarding school grounds.

“The work has only just begun,” said US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. She had ordered the investigation a year ago. The Minister is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna Native American tribe. The 61-year-old’s grandparents also had to spend many years in the government’s re-education boarding schools. Now their stories of suffering, like those of many other survivors, are to be documented.

In addition, a “healing program” based on the Canadian model is planned – with extensive psychological care for the survivors and their relatives. After the discovery of almost 1,000 indigenous children’s bodies on Catholic boarding school properties in Canada last summer, Pope Francis also apologized for the atrocities committed by his church.

The wounds are intergenerational, said a spokesman for the committee of inquiry. Even today there is not a single Native American whose life is not affected by these boarding schools.

Bonnet agrees: “Many later tried to forget the trauma caused by alcohol. And many who were abused themselves then abused their families.” Now he demands: “The churches must take responsibility for the pain they have inflicted on so many indigenous families. Our children need help.”