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  Photo by Dianne Bentz

In 2004, the St. Labre Indian School Educational Association raised more than $22 million to educate children from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations.


Finding the Funds
St. Labre school has raised millions to help Northern Cheyenne youth. But at what cost to their culture?

Story by Chelsea DeWeese
Photos by Dianne Bentz

Yarlott wears a suit, but flashes an easy smile that makes him approachable. His facial features hint at the Korean half of his heritage, while his high cheekbones and the miniature totem pole behind his desk hint at the Crow Indian half.

One need only look at his bookshelves, though, to get a true glance of the executive director’s identity: Yarlott’s shelves are filled with books on Catholicism, federal funding for faith-based organizations, employment guidelines and teaching.

Prior to assuming his current position at St. Labre, Yarlott worked for more than six years in the school’s youth homes. These homes provide a safe environment for St. Labre students whose lives at home are in crisis.

It was during the time he spent in the youth homes, and throughout his childhood growing up on the Crow Reservation, that Yarlott gained a true understanding of the social ramifications of poverty. His parents always told him how important knowledge is in leading a better life, and it is a lesson he’s carried with him into his professional career in education.

Yarlott says the money the Northern Cheyenne Tribe seeks in the lawsuit will put a fresh coat of paint on the reservation, but it will not solve the underlying societal issues at play that are compounding the tribe’s existing economic difficulties.

“I believe education is the only way to effect long-changing good on the reservations,” he says.

Twenty minutes away, in Lame Deer, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s poverty is even more glaring. The Chief Little Wolf building, housing the tribal council and administrative offices, is surrounded by houses with chipping paint that are lifted into the air on stilts and cinder blocks. Many houses’ windows and doorways are boarded shut, and, in some places, all that remains where homes once stood are chimney stacks and foundations covered in ash.

Packs of stray dogs run the main drag like gangs of unruly teens.

Unemployment on the reservation often exceeds 50 percent and sometimes soars upward of 70 percent.

The abject poverty on the reservation has bred typical societal plagues: substance abuse, elevated high school dropout rates, increased rates of teen pregnancy and domestic violence.

The lawsuit against St. Labre is one of the council’s first steps in its attempt to break an existing cycle of dependency and rebuild the Northern Cheyenne nation under the newly elected tribal president, Eugene Little Coyote.

Little Coyote made a campaign promise to resolve the situation between the tribe and St. Labre and earned nearly double the number of votes of his opponent. At the helm of a unanimous tribal council, he moved forward with the lawsuit just four months into his new position, after the latest set of failed negotiations with St. Labre.

According to council records, the tribe first started looking into fundraising by St. Labre in 1960, after the school had students as part of the workforce in a factory on the reservation making trinkets for potential donors (the factory has since closed). In 1999 the tribal council created the Independence Task Force to look into operations at St. Labre and in 2002 drafted a lawsuit against the mission school. The lawsuit never made it to court because of conflict between the tribal council and administrators regarding the issue, but the decision to go forward with the current lawsuit was a unanimous one.

“That school is just a shell now,” says Joe Little Coyote, Eugene’s father and a former council member who now works on economic development on the reservation. “No more priests, no more nuns. [Yarlott says one priest and one nun work at the mission.] They don’t even have a mission anymore. All they have is an educational business enterprise over there and we’re the gimmick.”

He says council members are trying to get the tribe’s economy on its feet, but lack the capital to get started. Many envision damages awarded in the lawsuit going into an economic development trust fund on the reservation.

Little Coyote points out his tribe values its land-based spirituality too much to exploit the vast hydrocarbon resources under its feet for a financial quick fix and, because the Northern Cheyenne’s name, culture, symbols, and heritage are used in raising money for St. Labre, the tribe has a vested interest in the nearby mission school.

“Their paternalism blocks our self-determination,” he says. “We want a full disclosure on how much they’ve made and received in our names … They depict us as drunks, winos, sinners, thieves, molesters, lazy and shiftless. We just aren’t any good. We just can’t measure up. That’s how they depict us in their public campaign.”

Yarlott disagrees with that characterization, but says he doesn’t understand why the school shouldn’t be able to tell the donors about living conditions on the reservation to raise money to educate Northern Cheyenne and Crow children.

“If people read these stories, I don’t know where that’s so wrong,” he says. “In order to get the funds in, we tell the stories of the communities that we serve. And if that brings in money for us, then that’s opening up possibilities for these children.”

He says St. Labre is a charitable institution that can use donated money to help improve education on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations.

“St. Labre is not the fund-raising arm of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe,” he says.

Last year the St. Labre Indian School Educational Association spent more than $3 million on youth and community services, most of them on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

In addition to operating boys’ and girls’ youth homes, this money helped pay travel and lodging expenses for Northern Cheyenne tribal members who had to go to Billings for medical appointments and for members who were in rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction.

The school provided propane fuel and firewood to low-income families to offset heating expenses and took Northern Cheyenne tribal elders on field trips to sacred locations like Devils Tower and Medicine Wheel in Wyoming.

St. Labre distributes donated blankets and clothing to Northern Cheyenne families, works with Sportsmen Against Hunger to distribute wild game meat and gives away hams and turkeys to families during the holidays.

Almost $15 million of St. Labre’s income last year went toward education programs and instruction at the school, the quality of which is reflected in college enrollment numbers, Yarlott says. According to his statistics, in both 2003 and 2004 more than 60 percent of St. Labre graduates went on to college.

This is an impressive statistic considering that, according to the 2000 census figures, only a quarter of Northern Cheyenne adults had attended college.

The school has come under criticism for often spending more than a third of its income on fundraising, but Yarlott counters that this is the unavoidable expense of direct mail fundraising for a charitable mission hours away from any big cities: last year St. Labre sent out 17 million fundraising brochures.

Yarlott says the primary goal of St. Labre Indian School is to let students know what their options in life are and that, armed with education, they are in charge of their own futures.

“St. Labre is about opportunities,” he says.



Kate Pine, Dianna Williams, and Kendra Woodenlegs drag Shalane Burns to class after lunch on a recent spring afternoon at St. Labre Indian School.

Curtis Yarlott, executive director of St. Labre Indian School, believes the best way to affect longstanding change is through education. "Painting all these houses won't fix the problem, it'll just put a new coat of paint on it," he says. "We show what's possible; we need to work toward what's possible - the potential."

During the campaign for tribal president, Eugene Little Coyote simply said that the St. Labre matter would be "resolved." With the Northern Cheyenne lawsuit against the school, many say he is making good on that promise.

Joe Little Coyote represents the last of the Northern Cheyenne tribal members who speak their language in everyday communication. He says the St. Labre Indian School is responsible for the "cultural genocide" of the Northern Cheyenne people.

St. Labre Chapel was constructed in 1971 to resemble an Indian lodge or tipi. Traditionally, the beam that stretches out in front of the tipi holds things of importance to the family that resides in that lodge, such as a shield or medicine bundle. Today, some Northern Cheyenne view the cross of the St. Labre Church as representing the burden they carry as a people, brought on by St. Labre during the boarding school era.

Cedar, an agent used to purify and protect Plains Indians, is available to Catholics attending the St. Labre Church.

Beaded crosses are just one of many things that St. Labre has done to try to incorporate Native American elements into the church.

Eugene Little Coyote, left, Drew Elkshoulder, and Frank Rowland make plans to rebuild the Northern Cheyenne Indian Tribe. Rowland is a member of the Independence Task Force, a group that looked into the operations of St. Labre.

Middle school students at St. Labre Indian School patiently stand in line waiting for lunch.

Joe Little Coyote looks out over his family's ceremonial grounds. Every year, he and his extended family camp out for a year in the hills of his ancestors and partake in rituals and ceremonies. I even take a portable basketball hoop and a volleyball net, he says, and we just let the kids run wild through the hills.


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