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Tribe wants mission to help economy

LAME DEER, Mont. - The Northern Cheyenne Tribe, through a special task force, wants to tap into funding of St. Labre Mission school to help relieve economic problems on the reservation.

Since the school uses the Northern Cheyenne Tribe to raise funds, the tribe in turn wants the school to put the money where it believes fund-raising should go, into jobs and better education.

The tribe established a task force that entered into discussions with St. Labre trying to reach an agreement to help the tribe get back on its economic feet, officials said. The effort to rebuild an economic structure on the reservation is dubbed the Marshall Plan.

"Being the chairman of the task force and a representative of the Northern Cheyenne people, you must clearly understand that we are no longer willing to have to go begging for something that was intended for our benefit in the first place ... ," said Hugh Clubfoot, chairman of the tribal task force in a letter to St. Labre.

The tribe is willing to take the issue into the court system to secure what Clubfoot refers to as legitimate interests. At the same time, the task force insists that reconciliation is a top priority. St. Labre has been a willing participant in discussions and in the economic development of the tribe, said Curtis Yarlott, St. Labre director, adding, "Discussions have not been concluded."

He said taking the issue to the media was not done in good faith and he was reluctant to list topics were on the table for discussion.

The task force claims the school raises more than $60 million dollars a year at the rate of $90,000 per day, in the name of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow. The only contribution by the school is employment and education, without much emphasis on the culture of the Crow or Northern Cheyenne, St. Labre opponents say.

A task force spokesperson said the heart of the matter was socio-economic development. The tribe approached the school and the school has agreed to discuss the issues, Yarlott said.

A letter to the general membership of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe implied it is tribal members who have questions about St. Labre's role.

"These ... seem to center on one question: How come we have to remain so poor while St. Labre get richer - in using the name of the Northern Cheyenne people to raise vast sums of money supposedly for our benefit?" Clubfoot said.

He accused the school of "dragging its feet" to offer its financial resources as a help to the tribe. "Because of this I came to the conclusion that the St. Labre Mission really doesn't appreciate the severity of the impoverished conditions of the Northern Cheyenne people."

The tribe and the school agreed to establish an endowment fund in 1984 that was to provide low-interest loans so tribal members could start small businesses. St. Labre assisted in establishing that fund, which began with $1.25 million dollars. Task force officials said the account benefited very few people.

Yarlott said one of the benefits was that some $400,000 of the interest was used to financially bail out a privately owned convenience store now owned by the tribe.

Yarlott admitted the endowment fund did "not meet directives. I can't say why, maybe it was a lack of public knowledge." He also said some past trustees may have hindered the fund. He put the blame on St. Labre and the tribe.

In the spring of 1999, funds from the endowment were turned over to the tribe, he said. By agreement, when the capital gains equaled the original $1 million fund it would be turned over to the tribe. Yarlott said some $2.7 million was given to the tribe.

The tribe also benefited from an $8 million saw mill that was sold to it for $1 by St. Labre. Yarlott said St. Labre became the majority shareholder in the sawmill in 1988 and ran it until 1998. The mill bought timber from the tribe and individuals and provided an economic benefit to the region, he said.

"St. Labre also provided $750,000 for assistance to manage the sawmill," Yarlott said. Another $500,000 was given to the tribe for environmental clean up because of the excess of sawdust.

The school also gives money for the social activities of the tribe, contributes to the charity fund, provides scholarships to the graduating students of St. Labre and provides grants for alcohol treatment, he said.

"We have demonstrated our commitment to the tribe outside our focus of providing an education."

Yarlott said the task force brought up the concept of a four-year college. Dull Knife Community College presently offers two-year degrees. He said St. Labre would be reluctant to enter into competition with Dull Knife College. That was the only topic he would mention.

He said St. Labre would look at ways it could fit in to help the tribe.

Why is the school endowed with financial security? Yarlott said good investments in the markets provided secure financial assets.

The Northern Cheyenne Reservation has an unemployment level of 75 percent. Of those employed, 98 percent work in the governments or for charities. Tribal officials say the economic situation is desperate.

St. Labre Mission, founded in 1884 by group of Catholic Ursulin nuns, now employs 300 people to teach and administer to a student body of 700 students in kindergarten through grade 12.

Printed information from the school shows the main source of revenue as almost exclusively from private donations.