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St. Joseph’s Indian School Uses Fake Children to Raise Money

Hmm... did Annette Bosworth get a job writing fundraising letters for St. Joseph Indian School?

Dr. Bosworth is now marketing example #1 that Base Connect uses to tout its political fundraising potential. On a webpage titled "Nuts & Bolts" (you had her at "Nuts," boys), the Washington D.C. direct-mail firm cites Bosworth as an example of how they can raise millions of dollars on an entirely fake candidate.

Now CNN finds that St. Joseph's in Chamberlain is raking in cash with stories of abused Indian children who don't exist:

According to its financial statements, St. Joseph's Indian School raised more than $51 million last year from millions of Americans who donated because of those mailings.

CNN began receiving complaints about mailings like this more than two years ago. When asked about Josh Little Bear's letter, Kory Christianson, the director of development, wrote us that there was no such student.

"The name 'Josh Little Bear' is fictitious," he wrote, "but unfortunately, his story is not" [David Fitzpatrick and Drew Griffin, "U.S. Indian School's Fundraising Letters Sent to Millions Signed by Fictitious Kids,", 2014.11.17].

CNN sees no sign that St. Joseph's is misusing the millions it makes on what one critic calls "poverty porn." However, making up stories to convince people to give money is something we expect of Annette Bosworth and Mike Rounds, not folks trying to do real good for South Dakotans.

CNN almost got the school's president to discuss the proper boundaries of truth in marketing, but his marketing director cut off the conversation:

We tried unsuccessfully to interview the leadership of St. Joseph's. The communications director, Jona Ohm, first invited us to meet the school president at the small museum operated by the school.

The president, Mike Tyrell, acknowledged that the mailings "push the edge" of marketing and asking about them "is a legitimate question." But Ohm told us to stop.

"You don't have permission to record in any way, shape or form," she said [Fitzpatrick and Griffin, 2014.11.17].

I have no doubt that St. Jospeh's Indian School is doing good work that merits its donors' support. I also have no doubt they can earn that support with simple fact, not fiction.


  1. Charlie Hoffman 2014.11.18

    Fifty years ago my grandmother would put two or three dollars into the envelope and send it off to this school. My father would say to my grandmother, "Mom do you really think two bucks is going to make a difference?"
    My grandmother would reply, "Leroy two dollars isn't much but if a few thousand people each send in two or three dollars it becomes a pretty nice number!"
    Gotta love optimists!!!

  2. larry kurtz 2014.11.18

    the well from which stupid white people are drawn is bottomless.

  3. Roger Cornelius 2014.11.18

    This fund raising technique has been used by Catholic Indian missions for decades, it has been patterned after the successful fund raising Boys Town in Omaha, NE has used.
    In a 1970's an expose of the financial operations of Boys Town led to the revelation that funds raised for the institution were either donated or leant to Creighton University expansion of their law and medical schools, including a new hospital.
    Holy Rosary Indian Mission, now Red Cloud Indian School, on the Pine Ridge reservation has used the same sob stories to fund raise. When I was in high school my summer joy was working in the public relations office that oversaw the large direct mail campaigns. The highest priority we had was to safeguard those priceless mailing lists and to rotate mailings on a quarterly basis. I also worked in the count room where all the envelopes filled with cash and checks came in, they were from all over the country and the world.
    At one point, the mission used the proceeds to purchase a huge ranch in the Nebraska panhandle to raise prize cattle, I don't recall what kind. When the ranch was sold, it was worth millions, I doubt that any Indians ever saw the ranch.
    These Catholic institutions use the tragic circumstances of Native American poverty and the need for better education to raise millions of dollars, while many of the people they cry about live next door.
    Like St. Joseph Indian schools, the mailing Holy Rosary Indian Mission were exaggerated and misrepresented the face of poverty, it did not matter, the fund raising drives were always successful.
    I'd speculate that Red Cloud has raised so much money in the name of Indians that they could absolutely erase poverty from the reservations.
    Their bank accounts and interests grows into more money everyday while the poverty rages on around them.

  4. Taunia 2014.11.18

    Roger: isn't that the way the BIA has also operated? I remember in college how a congressman (whose name I forget - unusual name, bow tie wearing) had it in for Secretary Babbitt over auditing the BIA. It was such a mess no one could finish it.

    Also, just want you to know I appreciate your posts and your views. I don't respond directly to you very often, but I look forward to your reasoned input.

  5. mikeyc, that's me! 2014.11.18

    That's classic. Case in point-the election.

  6. Roger Cornelius 2014.11.18

    Thanks and the same applies to you, I don't always have to respond to your comments because your message is always well articulated.
    I do recall the Babbit fiasco involving the BIA audit, but I can't recall the circumstances at this time. I'll have to work on that.
    On a recalled note, the recent Cobell Settlement was also based on poor accounting by the BIA, land leases were collected for years and never paid to land owners or the owners were only paid of the income.
    The Cobell Settlement started to transform itself in the 1970's when and Indian journalist by the name of Dick LaCourse uncovered the account, quite by accident.
    This was about the time New York City was going to go into bankruptcy and begging for a government bailout. A congressmen inadvertently said the government could use the money from the Indian trust fund to bailout the city, Indians said, "what trust fund?" and the battle started. To this day, I doubt that the Indian Trust could endure an audit.

  7. JeniW 2014.11.18

    There are two well known effective fundraising strategies of all fundraisers, regardless of the organization: 1. Children and animals are natural appeals, use them if they are part of the organizations' missions. 2. If do not serve children or animals (or even if do,) testimonials is the thing to use. Use real stories of success.

    Providing testimonials is a way of gaining empathy and sympathy.

    The Indian school has the two things needed to be successful with fundraising, children, and endless supply of stories to tell.

    Most organizations are going to be truthful, because it will hurt them in the long run if they are not. Unfortunately, there are fundraisers who are dishonest.

  8. Adam McLean 2014.11.18

    Selling phony heartfelt stories is a total fraud. They've got plenty of real ones if they just go out and get them. 'Pushing the edge of marketing' - I do it all the time and without bold face lying. Mike Tyrell just helped make marketing look more like the sport of slimeballs.

  9. grudznick 2014.11.18

    This just puts the catholic church in the same boat as that pretty young Dr. Boz and those nice young men who call to fix my computer I didn't know needed fixing.

    I would have a question for my good friend Mr. C, who said "I'd speculate that Red Cloud has raised so much money in the name of Indians that they could absolutely erase poverty from the reservations."

    I have to wonder if just giving out free money to people in poverty is the way to erase poverty, or if perhaps that's not what he is referring to but instead means to use all those ill-gotten-gains to start programs and businesses and education and such to allow those living on the reservations to erase poverty themselves. I'm just not sure you can buy your way out of poverty buy a giant dollop of free money given to the poor. Otherwise pan-handlers wouldn't have to handling pan, would they?

  10. Roger Cornelius 2014.11.18

    That is true grudz, I wasn't necessarily suggesting anyone hand out money, although that probably wouldn't hurt some, but to think of the infrastructure that could build or better yet, use it for it's intended purposes, education.

    Catholic Indian mission should have the highest level of education programs available with prep schools for colleges and an abundance of scholarships for those wanting to further their education.

    They obviously have the money tucked away somewhere, they need to use it to educate Indian children.

  11. grudznick 2014.11.18

    That would be a fine use of these many millions squirreled away. Use the funds to educate the Indian children for which they were intended, and of course clothe and feed them as well during their education. That makes total sense. Instead it seems they are added to the coffers of gold and coin hidden somewhere deep within each cathedral, the private treasure horde of the religocrats who are addicted to rolling in money for their own perverted pleasures.

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.11.19

    Charlie, with optimism like that, your grandmother sounds like a Democrat. :-)

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.11.19

    $51 million a year is a spectacular sum for a school serving 200 students. Granted, it's a boarding school, so I'm about to compare apples and oranges, but consider this data from our public schools' AY 2013 budgets:

    —Rapid City serves 13,000+ students on an annual budget of $99 million.

    —Aberdeen serves 4,000+ students on an annual budget of $27 million.

    —Chamberlain serves 800+ students on an annual budget of $7.9 million.

    —Eagle Butte serves about 290 kids on an annual budget of $5.3 million.

    St. Joseph's per-student share of that $51 million would be about $250,000. Eagle Butte's per-student spending is the highest of any public K-12 district in South Dakota, topping $18,000.

    St. Joseph's is apparently spending an order of magnitude more per student than any public school in South Dakota.

  14. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.11.19

    CK, the rebuttal St. Joseph's offers (and that you link—thank you!) says the mailings used false names to protect identities. I'm o.k. with that. It says the stories are true. I'm o.k. with that. What remains unclear is if the narratives told under each name are really factual accounts associated with specific individuals (i.e., there was one child who experienced all of the events attributed to "Josh") or whether the marketers at St. Joseph's have woven several stories—all compelling, all true, but all from different individuals—into one fictitious life story.

    The head of the school did not make that clear in his interview. It would not be hard to say, "Yes, that story in that letter is one child's story. We changed the name to protect that one child's identity." That would shut down CNN much more quickly than the still unclear rebuttal linked above, which leaves us still trying to figure out who's playing games with the truth, CNN or St. Joseph's.

  15. grudznick 2014.11.28

    Donate now. Children will freeze otherwise, and all of their fathers get drunk and beat them. (I don't believe that, but that's what the literature says. These American Indian children will all freeze or get sent home where all of their fathers get drunk and beat them. I hope many don't have drunken fathers at home.)

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