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Indian Tribe and Catholic Charity Clash Over Funds

  • Kathy Witkowsky

More than a century ago, the Catholic Church founded St. Labre Indian School to serve Native American children in southeast Montana. Since then, St. Labre has become one of the state's most successful fund-raising organizations. Now the Northern Cheyenne tribe is suing St. Labre, saying it's entitled to some of that money.

Students are just coming back to class at St. Labre. But it's been business as usual over the summer here in the school's donor relations room, where nearly two dozen employees were opening stacks upon stacks of envelopes and adding up their contents - small checks, mostly, $10 to $20. Executive Director Curtis Yarlott says these small donations are typical, but they add up: to about $22 million a year. "You've heard the saying that many hands make light work," he jokes. "Well, we're an illustration of that."

Those donors are responding to appeal letters the school sends out. Mr. Yarlott picks one off his desk and begins to read. "It all started when the father of this Native American family found himself in jail. Shortly after the mother became so strung out on drugs she couldn't take care of her children. That left a second-grader in charge, a child, taking care of children. It's a sad story, but at least half of them are still together and in school here at St. Labre." He puts the letter down and looks up. "That's a real story. That happened."

No one disputes that many Northern Cheyenne and other Indian people in the area have been ravaged by poverty, alcohol and drugs. Mr. Yarlott says St. Labre is an important part of the soluti, because it provides a free Catholic school education for hundreds of Native American students and social services for needy families.

But Northern Cheyenne President Eugene Little Coyote says that St. Labre could--and should--do more to improve life on his reservation. As evidence, he takes a visitor to a cluster of run-down tract and trailer homes just a few hundred meters from the school. He gestures toward the school, with its towering stone chapel, built to resemble the teepees used by the Plains Indians. "Here you have a magnificent, beautiful campus, well-maintained infrastructure, everything, within eyeshot of these dilapidated homes of Cheyennes. And that's really symbolic of what this is about."

"This" is a lawsuit the tribe has filed against the St. Labre Indian Educational Association and the Roman Catholic Church… alleging that the tribe is owed a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars that St. Labre has raised over the past 50 years by "marketing the plight and financial need of the Northern Cheyenne people." As Mr. Little Coyote puts it, "I don't think that the St. Labre Catholic mission, whose purpose was to benefit the Northern Cheyenne-solely the Northern Cheyenne-they're not doing enough to help us. And yet it's clear that they're certainly helping themselves. And possibly other people."

One other group of people that St. Labre is helping are the Cheyenne's neighbors and historic enemies, the Crows: nearly a quarter of the students are members of the Crow tribe. Their stories are also included in fund-raising letters. Those letters have helped St. Labre amass $89 million worth of property and investments. That's a lot of money, and Curtis Yarlott says that's exactly what is motivating the tribe. "I think they see St. Labre as being an opportunity to get an infusion of money that would help the tribal government structure."

But there are other forces at work here besides money. The relationship between the tribe and St. Labre is fraught with a history of economic dependence and mistrust that stretches back over decades, to the era when Indian boarding schools - including St. Labre - sought to assimilate Native Americans. Former students like Annie Bement say they risked harsh punishments for breaking the rules. "We were made to talk English and then we had to go to church," she recalls. "And if we did, like just talk in Cheyenne, and we got caught, we'd have to put our hands on the desk and get our hands slapped. If we moved them, we'd have to do it again."

St. Labre has changed with the times. It no longer uses corporal punishment and it even offers a class in the Northern Cheyenne language. Still the lawsuit alleges that the school's past practices altered and destroyed the Northern Cheyenne culture.

But there is another aspect of the relationship the lawsuit does not address: how much charity tribal members have come to expect from St Labre. Ms. Bement, for instance, who now works at the school cafeteria, refused to pay for her children's meals when they were students there, and complains that the school's thrift store hiked its prices from 10 cents an item to a quarter. "I thought they were supposed to be free. Sent here for the Indians. But we have to buy it, buy the clothes."

Tribal President Little Coyote says a cash award from St. Labre would help the tribe heal from the past, and change the balance of power in the future. "If we are no longer impoverished then they'll be no more need to raise money in our names. So we want to become independent from that dysfunctional relationship that requires us to be poor and them to be wealthy and resourceful."

The lawsuit has the backing of the Tribal Council, which has rejected a settlement offer from St Labre that sources on both sides confirmed was in the millions of dollars. But the issue is a divisive one among tribal members, who spoke about it outside a busy reservation convenience store. June American Horse thinks the lawsuit could improve life on the reservation, which she says is hard. "'Cause some of us have to live on Social Security and some of us have to live on other assistance just to survive here. 'Cause we don't have no jobs. So I was hoping that would supplement our income some way if we do come through with that lawsuit. But if not, then we just have to sit here and suffer!"

But several customers voiced their objections to the lawsuit. They wouldn't give their names for fear of reprisal by tribal leaders. According to one man, "If it wasn't for St Labre and the mission, a lot of us wouldn't be here today. Because they took a lot of us and fed us. Including some of the very people that are involved in that lawsuit and their parents. So they have to stop and think about what St Labre had done for them."

But a large chunk of donations to St Labre -- as much as 43% -- goes back into fund-raising. Charity watchdog organizations say that figure should be no more than 35%. And despite the millions it spends on education, St Labre's student test scores not only lag behind the state average, but sometimes behind those of their Native American peers as well.

Still, Curtis Yarlott says that lately, more of the school's graduates are enrolling and staying in college. "We see our role as providing an empowering education that in the long term is going to return benefits many times over whatever amount of cash the Northern Cheyenne tribe could realize from this lawsuit." He's convinced that St Labre is the community's best hope for change.

But the unfortunate reality is this: while both St Labre and the tribe insist they want to move the Northern Cheyenne toward economic independence…. that goal remains a long ways off.