March 12, 2005
Church, school sued by tribe
By JAN FALSTAD
Of The Gazette Staff
The Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed a lawsuit in Billings Friday against the Roman Catholic Church and the St. Labre Indian School Educational Association alleging that the school has used the tribe's "plight" and "financial need" to operate one of the most successful fund-raising enterprises in American history.
Today only a small percentage of students at St. Labre Mission are Northern Cheyenne, the lawsuit said, yet the school continues to raise money by marketing the tribe's poverty.
Northern Cheyenne President Eugene Little Coyote and the tribal council, which voted unanimously to authorize the lawsuit, allege that the school had "reaped enormous financial revenue and benefit" during the past 50 years.
"We're trying to make sure there is a more equitable distribution of the funds raised on the Northern Cheyenne reservation," Little Coyote said.
In just two of the past four years, St. Labre has reaped $57 million while poverty is rampant throughout the reservation, the lawsuit stated.
The lawsuit filed in Yellowstone District Court was first considered in 1998.
Billings attorney Cliff Edwards and his law firm are representing the Northern Cheyenne. St. Labre officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.
"It is not known to the Northern Cheyenne where these tens - probably hundreds - of millions of dollars have gone," the lawsuit stated.
The tribe is demanding that St. Labre open its books for the past half century through "forensic accounting" and pay all compensatory and punitive damages due under Montana law.
Other charges against St. Labre and the Catholic Church include:
Trespassing on tribal lands
Not compensating the tribe for the school's "impressive buildings and facilities" just outside Ashland
Imposing church values and religion on the tribe
Using without permission "the faces, stories and symbols of the Northern Cheyenne"
St. Labre Mission School was started on the reservation in 1884 to educate and to help the Northern Cheyenne. The small mission school has grown into a 100-acre modern campus.
The school raised money through mass marketing. It built a factory at Ashland in the early 1960s where tribal members made plastic items, including Indian dolls and costume jewelry, which were sent to donors.
The lawsuit names The Roman Catholic Church, the Dioceses of Great Falls/Billings, St. Labre Indian School Educational Association and St. Labre Home for Indian Children and Youth.
Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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