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St. Joseph’s Indian School Has Learned a Lesson About Fundraising

Recently, CNN released a report on the fundraising practices of the St. Joseph's Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota. The school raised almost $51 million in 2013 alone, by sending 30 million mailings with dreamcatchers made in China and letters from children, labeled “misleading appeals,” by the Better Business Bureau. According to audited financial statements, the organization spent only $30,278,951 on program service activities.

Indian Country Today Media Network asked Crow Creek Tribal Councilwoman Roxanne Sazue about the school’s impact on the tribe, and she said, “There’s good and there’s bad. The school has really benefitted the tribes. Sometimes children need a residential setting and when the younger kids need stability, it’s good. The high school program is pretty phenomenal. The whole problem is how they exploit our children. They have caused the tribes a black eye.”

Apparently the school heard that message loud and clear. Soon before publication, the school’s attorney, Steven Smith, called ICTMN and said, “Fundraising letters like this will never, ever be part of their fundraising approach again. A great lesson was learned. It has caused some pretty intense introspection.”

Michael Tyrell, current president of St. Joseph’s School, who has been employed there for 29 years, agreed to answer questions about the school, adding that he felt CNN came in with an agenda, and was not interested in the school’s programming.

Are the quotes in the mailers and on the website direct quotes from the children?

Those are real stories, but it would be hard to pin them on any one child. We put right on there the child’s name has been changed to protect the children. Those are unfortunate and true stories.

How would you respond to the tribe’s assertion that these comments make them look bad?

Our kids come from a beautiful culture. There’s a lot of positive, but there are also a lot of difficulties. We try to tell a balanced story in showing the difficulties—it also allows us to show the success. It’s tough to find the right balance. CNN tried to pin on us that we are making things up, and that’s not the case.

Does any of the money raised go back to the Catholic church or does it stay in the school?

Saint Joseph’s is a separate corporation so it stays in the programming here. There is also a program in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, a women’s shelter for domestic violence, and we have pastoral teams on Lower Brule and Crow Creek Reservations. All the money stays in South Dakota.

Why is the fundraising so aggressive when you seem to have more than enough to meet the needs?

Is it aggressive, or not? There is showing the need and showing the good works. It’s a way of getting information about the programs, the culture, those types of things.

St. Joseph’s Indian School

St. Joseph’s Indian School President Michael Tyrell has been employed by the school for 29 years.

It’s a lot of money—$51 million could change Indian Country.

About 67 cents on the dollar is going into programming and getting the word out.

But isn’t “getting the word out” really about fundraising?

We have very holistic programming. We have the museum that does a lot of outreach and education. We are a boarding school, we have the home program, the counseling program and we have master’s level counselors for the kids. Kids that fall behind, we move them forward; kids that are doing okay, we move them forward. We have a health center on campus, we have a recreation center, a dining hall that provides lunch and food for the school’s homes.

When you look at the audit, they said only about 57 percent is going into programming.

It costs 33 cents to raise a dollar. We have been criticized about our direct mail, but the whole mail system might not be out there in 10 years, 20 years. Can we begin to start an endowment, put some money aside so the good works can go on in perpetuity? If we show some prudence, people question us on that. If we don’t have any money, people question us on that. This allows us to get ahead.

Why do you have a request page for shampoos and bedding and other things? Why did you ask for money for heat? Doesn’t the school have enough money for all of that?

The heat appeal was something that the Better Business Bureau cited a couple years ago, so that whole process has changed. Anytime we can offset a dollar that can be used for a special education teacher or for the teachers or the homes or a counselor, we are going to allow for that opportunity. This time of year we get a lot of Christmas presents. There is a certain portion of society that wants to send tangible items. We want to be open that.

Who makes those millions of dreamcatchers sent out in mailers?

That’s a tough question. Somebody said in passing, just have your kids make those, and of course we laughed and said our kids are busy going to school, riding bikes and being kids. A lot of people out there like the dreamcatcher. It’s a good way to get our message out, so we work with a company that brings them in from China.

According to the annual report, there are traditional Lakota children here. Must they take religious classes? Are the religious classes specifically Catholic or are they simply ethically oriented?

About 50 percent are Catholic and 50 percent are not. In our curriculum, we are open to other faiths. Our services are Catholic, and we do make our kids go to mass on Sunday. We have non-Catholic kids come up front and receive a blessing so everybody is part of the process here. We understand that Native spirituality is not just segmented one day a week but it is a lifestyle where you live these things out, day to day.

Do you provide language and culture classes? At the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, the kids come out pretty fluent.

ICTMN was sent a report on the classes. Students receive two, 40-minute periods of Lakota Studies instruction, including language, per week. A prayer, the flag song, weather, and menu, are in Lakota, and there is a Lakota phrase of the week. Each month, a Lakota Mass includes dancing and drum with hymns and prayers in Lakota.

This year, the first through third grade culture classes are supplemented with the WoLakota Project. Teachers received training and will begin some of the Oceti Sakowin Program, as well. Programming also includes Lakota Circles of Hope, Sons and Daughters of Tradition, a drum group and hand games. There is also an Inipi (sweat lodge) on campus and an annual children’s powwow.

How many Native Americans are on staff, and in what capacities?

An email from the school’s Human Resources Department, said: “During the last accreditation cycle we employed 18 Native American individuals,” which is nine percent of the staff. Employees include house parents, teachers, counselors, Family Outreach Department, residential training, accounting and custodians. The Major Gifts Officer, several Donor Care Specialists, and a Residential Coordinator are Native.


In her comments, Chairwoman Sazue suggested the school should hire more Native employees and recommended, “They have millions left over, why don’t they put that back into the families they proclaim are being affected by drugs and alcohol, which effects the whole family. Right now, their perception is to save the child, but when the child gets out of school and goes back into that home—why don’t they help the family? That’s powerful and very true.”