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U.S. policies to “civilize” Native American children. investigation reveals decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests

This story is part of a series examining the legacy of America’s network of Indian boarding schools.

Overcrowding, poor diets and little medical care often meant that tuberculosis, measles and other diseases spread quickly. Children went hungry. They were coerced to work for families in surrounding communities.

Their education was minimal, according to government reports. Children spent half of the day learning basic arithmetic, reading and writing, and the rest of the day working — farming and vocational work for boys; laundry, sewing and cooking for girls.

Corporal punishment was supposed to be allowed only in cases of “grave violations of rules.” It was to be done or supervised by the superintendent, according to the 1890 report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. But former boarding school students say these limits on punishment were rarely enforced, especially at remote schools.

“It really was a poor school,” said Thresa Lamebull, who was born around 1907 and went to St. Paul Mission and Boarding School in Hays, Mont., as a child. Her interview appeared in a 1982 book, “Recollections of Fort Belknap’s Past.”

“We hardly had anything to eat. … The Ursuline nuns they were really strict. They would punish us and whip us, if they heard us talk our language.”

— Thresa Lamebull

Runaways faced beatings or solitary confinement. Many boarding school survivors recalled a common punishment: the “belt line.” A student who’d done wrong would be forced to strip to their underwear and then had to run down a line of classmates who hit them with hot, wet towels that had sharp pins on them.

In addition to the physical mistreatment, children suffered sexual abuse by priests, sisters or the members of religious orders who ran many of the schools.


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