In an intriguing new report by CNN, St. Joseph's Indian School has been "exposed" using less than honest sob stories and fake names in their letters to prospective donors—to the tune of $50 million last year. Turns out that "Josh Little Bear" didn't write you a letter begging for his continued sanctuary from poverty and drugs.
St. Joseph's Indian School is a boarding school in Chamberlain, South Dakota that seeks "to educate Native American youth mind, body, heart and spirit," taking in 200 students every year. The school's site goes on:
Child poverty and abuse are serious issues on Indian reservations. By supporting St. Joseph's Indian School, you are helping Native American children in need regain pride in the Lakota (Sioux) culture by learning the Lakota language, studying Native American culture and healing the broken family circle from which they come.
The school reportedly sends 30 million pieces of a mail every year as part of their fundraising campaign, which has included, CNN reports, "calendars, personalized return address stickers, notepads, elaborate stickers and a so-called 'Dreamcatcher,' a Native American handicraft that by tradition gives its owners good dreams."
Their mailers also include those treacly letters penned by "Josh Little Bears" and "Emily High Elks," individuals whose stories the school admitted to CNN do not exist. From the school's executive director of development Kory Christianson's letter to the news network:
The name "Josh Little Bear" is fictitious, but unfortunately, his story is not. The letter is a true story of the very real and challenging situations that far too many children face not only in the Native American community, but in families found in every sphere of society.
"It is never our intention to disparage in any way the Native American community," Christianson writes. "Our commitment to and respect for Native American people is evident in our work and our mission."
Native Americans in the community have balked at the fundraising campaign, deriding the letters. "That's how they get their money," Leonard Pease, vice chairman of the Crow Creek Lakota Sioux reservation, told CNN. "To me, they make the Indians look bad."
Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute, which represents Native American nonprofits, called the scheme "poverty porn." It's hard to disagree. I mean, look at one of the letters:
But even CNN admits, "it seems that the money being raised is being used for the right reasons:"
We were given a tour of the school but were not allowed to film. The complex, on the banks of the Missouri River, looks like a nice place and the children seemed happy, well-fed and well-housed.
Indeed, St. Joseph's Indian School does not appear to be a necessarily insidious agent bilking people out of money to run a slum. They're not exactly innocent, either—pursuant to their status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, they disclosed $122 million in assets last year, casting reported pleas for money to pay heating bills in serious doubt.
Exploiting white guilt can be an effective (and profitable!) marketing tool. It's easy. Those letters look fake. You'd have to be a willful idiot to believe one, and it appears plenty are. Because while the school's methods—namely, playing up poor Native American stereotypes—seem disingenuous, those letters are an honest acknowledgement of Americans' need for a sad story about a cute kid to be bothered (or rather, suckered) to care at all.