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Northern Cheyenne drop lawsuit

LAME DEER, Mont. ? About 45 members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe rallied here on Aug. 19 to protest a decision to drop a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Church.

Protesters also called for the removal of Tribal Chairman Geri Small and tribal attorneys Steve Chestnut and Steve Kelly, and protested a settlement with the state of Montana over coal development on lands adjacent to the reservation.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe had sued the church in July for its share of "hundreds of millions of dollars" raised since 1884 by the St. Labre Mission School, which operates campuses on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations.

The lawsuit, filed in District Court in Billings, alleged that the church "has misappropriated the vast majority" of the money, "failed and refused" to account for how the money was used and "has been unjustly enriched due to its misuse of the Northern Cheyenne People."

Two weeks later, the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council voted 6-2 to have the suit dismissed without prejudice, which means it could be refiled later.

Kelly said that a member of a task force created to look into the issue had authorized the Edwards law firm to file the lawsuit without clearance through the tribe. He would not identify the task force member.

"We don't want to get into finger pointing here with anybody at this point," Kelly said. "It was just a misunderstanding."

Kelly said that the tribe had broader claims against the St. Labre Mission than were indicated in the lawsuit. But he would not speculate on what course the tribe would take.

"It may be at the end of the day that our suit is never filed," he said.

He did, however, confirm that the tribe has a long history of dissatisfaction with the way the Catholic Church has operated and conducted fund-raising for the schools. Efforts to negotiate with the church to resolve the concerns have been unsuccessful, he said.

Curtis Yarlott, executive director of the St. Labre School, said that the lawsuit was "a big disappointment" for school officials. He agreed that the church had been unable to reach an agreement with the tribe, despite "fluid" discussions, but he denied any wrongdoing.

"The school has absolutely not misappropriated the money, nor do I believe we have misused it," he said. He said that the school would continue working toward its goal of meeting or exceeding state educational standards and that it was determined that the suit would not affect services to tribal members or relations with school employees.

Max Davis, an attorney representing the Catholic Diocese in Great Falls and Billings, would not comment on the lawsuit.

Efforts to reach tribal officials and their attorneys were unsuccessful.

In a news release, protest organizers John Youngbear and Darold Foote called for the "Sovereignty Rally" on the steps of tribal headquarters in Lame Deer. An 18-mile march from Busby, also on the Northern Cheyenne reservation, had been planned but was canceled, Mr. Youngbear said.

The news release cited "a flood of public opinion" against the Tribal Council's Aug. 6 decision to dismiss the lawsuit and blamed St. Labre for "cultural genocide and the exploitation of millions of dollars raised in the name of Cheyenne children with nothing to show for it."

The protesters sought removal of tribal chairwoman for "outright violations of the spirit and letter of Northern Cheyenne law" and "blatant disregard of civil rights." They also argued that the Otter Creek settlement, which involved a trade of lands between the state and federal government, violated tribal law because no referendum was held on the issue. The deal by the State Land Board guaranteed the tribe "virtually nothing at all" for impact funds, employment and cross-deputization of law enforcement agencies, the news release alleged.

Tribal employees who took part in the protest used annual leave, Youngbear said. Anonymous comments posted to The Billings Outpost web site indicated that some employees had been harassed for taking part, but those allegations were unconfirmed.

Youngbear said that the rally coincided with the Northern Cheyenne's annual pilgrimage to Fort Robinson, Neb. The pilgrimage commemorates the escape of tribal members from the fort in 1877 in an attempt to return to Montana.

Documents filed with the lawsuit in District Court in Billings indicated that the tribe has been involved in a long-running dispute over the school's fund-raising efforts. The tribe created the Northern Cheyenne Independence Task Force in January 1999 in an effort to settle the matter.

In October 2000, the council passed a resolution by a 7-1 margin authorizing legal action against St. Labre. The resolution declared that the mission had been "stalling" efforts to resolve the dispute without going to court. However, Kelly said that other resolutions made it clear that any suit would be filed using tribal attorneys and resources.

The lawsuit alleged that the mission school has gained "enormous financial remuneration" from marketing its charitable efforts on behalf of Northern Cheyenne children.

"Images and heart-rending stories and vignettes of these Indian children's plights and needs are the foundation of the Church's money solicitations from the targeted charitable donors located not only in the United States but elsewhere in the world," the suit stated.

The church used the money and tribal land to build schoolrooms, an "architecturally impressive" cathedral, a 5,000-foot airstrip and administration and support facilities, the suit stated. The church also provides grade school through high school education for Northern Cheyenne children and employment for a "few dozen adult Northern Cheyenne." But the church breached its fiduciary obligation to ensure that cash raised would be equitably shared and used to benefit the Northern Cheyenne people, the suit alleged.

"The Church has wrongfully profited from the misuse of the Northern Cheyenne People, resulting in unjust enrichment for the Church while taking monies away from true efforts to support, maintain, improve and enrich the lives of the Northern Cheyenne People," the suit alleged.

The suit did not provide details of any agreement with the church to share proceeds of charitable efforts; Yarlott said he knew of no such agreement. The suit also failed to state the specific basis of allegations that the church had misappropriated the funds.

The suit asked for a judgment that would have awarded the Northern Cheyenne Tribe its share of all money that the church has raised in its charitable drives. It also asked for possible punitive damages.

Supporters of the lawsuit tentatively planned a meeting on Aug. 28 to plan their next move in the case.