St. Joseph's Indian School Mailings
Flickr/Judith E. Bell
This image shows a mailing from St. Joseph's that contains a dreamcatcher, two pads of paper, two calendars, two sheets of mailing labels, and one sheet of stickers.

St. Joseph’s Indian School Has Learned a Lesson About Fundraising

Christina Rose

Recently, CNN released a report on the fundraising practices of the St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota. The school raised almost $51 million in 2013 alone, by sending 30 million mailings with dreamcatchers made in China and letters from children, labeled “misleading appeals,” by the Better Business Bureau. According to audited financial statements, the organization spent only $30,278,951 on program service activities.

Indian Country Today Media Network asked Crow Creek Tribal Councilwoman Roxanne Sazue about the school’s impact on the tribe, and she said, “There’s good and there’s bad. The school has really benefitted the tribes. Sometimes children need a residential setting and when the younger kids need stability, it’s good. The high school program is pretty phenomenal. The whole problem is how they exploit our children. They have caused the tribes a black eye.”

Apparently the school heard that message loud and clear. Soon before publication, the school’s attorney, Steven Smith, called ICTMN and said, “Fundraising letters like this will never, ever be part of their fundraising approach again. A great lesson was learned. It has caused some pretty intense introspection.”

Michael Tyrell, current president of St. Joseph’s School, who has been employed there for 29 years, agreed to answer questions about the school, adding that he felt CNN came in with an agenda, and was not interested in the school’s programming.

Are the quotes in the mailers and on the website direct quotes from the children?

Those are real stories, but it would be hard to pin them on any one child. We put right on there the child’s name has been changed to protect the children. Those are unfortunate and true stories.

How would you respond to the tribe’s assertion that these comments make them look bad?

Our kids come from a beautiful culture. There’s a lot of positive, but there are also a lot of difficulties. We try to tell a balanced story in showing the difficulties—it also allows us to show the success. It’s tough to find the right balance. CNN tried to pin on us that we are making things up, and that’s not the case.

Does any of the money raised go back to the Catholic church or does it stay in the school?

Saint Joseph’s is a separate corporation so it stays in the programming here. There is also a program in Eagle Butte, South Dakota, a women’s shelter for domestic violence, and we have pastoral teams on Lower Brule and Crow Creek Reservations. All the money stays in South Dakota.

Why is the fundraising so aggressive when you seem to have more than enough to meet the needs?

Is it aggressive, or not? There is showing the need and showing the good works. It’s a way of getting information about the programs, the culture, those types of things.

St. Joseph’s Indian School President Michael Tyrell has been employed by the school for 29 years. (St. Joseph’s Indian School)

It’s a lot of money—$51 million could change Indian Country.

About 67 cents on the dollar is going into programming and getting the word out.

But isn’t “getting the word out” really about fundraising?

We have very holistic programming. We have the museum that does a lot of outreach and education. We are a boarding school, we have the home program, the counseling program and we have master’s level counselors for the kids. Kids that fall behind, we move them forward; kids that are doing okay, we move them forward. We have a health center on campus, we have a recreation center, a dining hall that provides lunch and food for the school’s homes.

When you look at the audit, they said only about 57 percent is going into programming.

It costs 33 cents to raise a dollar. We have been criticized about our direct mail, but the whole mail system might not be out there in 10 years, 20 years. Can we begin to start an endowment, put some money aside so the good works can go on in perpetuity? If we show some prudence, people question us on that. If we don’t have any money, people question us on that. This allows us to get ahead.

Why do you have a request page for shampoos and bedding and other things? Why did you ask for money for heat? Doesn’t the school have enough money for all of that?

The heat appeal was something that the Better Business Bureau cited a couple years ago, so that whole process has changed. Anytime we can offset a dollar that can be used for a special education teacher or for the teachers or the homes or a counselor, we are going to allow for that opportunity. This time of year we get a lot of Christmas presents. There is a certain portion of society that wants to send tangible items. We want to be open that.

Who makes those millions of dreamcatchers sent out in mailers?

That’s a tough question. Somebody said in passing, just have your kids make those, and of course we laughed and said our kids are busy going to school, riding bikes and being kids. A lot of people out there like the dreamcatcher. It’s a good way to get our message out, so we work with a company that brings them in from China.

According to the annual report, there are traditional Lakota children here. Must they take religious classes? Are the religious classes specifically Catholic or are they simply ethically oriented?

About 50 percent are Catholic and 50 percent are not. In our curriculum, we are open to other faiths. Our services are Catholic, and we do make our kids go to mass on Sunday. We have non-Catholic kids come up front and receive a blessing so everybody is part of the process here. We understand that Native spirituality is not just segmented one day a week but it is a lifestyle where you live these things out, day to day.

Do you provide language and culture classes? At the Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, the kids come out pretty fluent.

ICTMN was sent a report on the classes. Students receive two, 40-minute periods of Lakota Studies instruction, including language, per week. A prayer, the flag song, weather, and menu, are in Lakota, and there is a Lakota phrase of the week. Each month, a Lakota Mass includes dancing and drum with hymns and prayers in Lakota.

This year, the first through third grade culture classes are supplemented with the WoLakota Project. Teachers received training and will begin some of the Oceti Sakowin Program, as well. Programming also includes Lakota Circles of Hope, Sons and Daughters of Tradition, a drum group and hand games. There is also an Inipi (sweat lodge) on campus and an annual children’s powwow.

How many Native Americans are on staff, and in what capacities?

An email from the school’s Human Resources Department, said: “During the last accreditation cycle we employed 18 Native American individuals,” which is nine percent of the staff. Employees include house parents, teachers, counselors, Family Outreach Department, residential training, accounting and custodians. The Major Gifts Officer, several Donor Care Specialists, and a Residential Coordinator are Native.


In her comments, Chairwoman Sazue suggested the school should hire more Native employees and recommended, “They have millions left over, why don’t they put that back into the families they proclaim are being affected by drugs and alcohol, which effects the whole family. Right now, their perception is to save the child, but when the child gets out of school and goes back into that home—why don’t they help the family? That’s powerful and very true.”

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bullbear's picture
Submitted by bullbear on
According to the organization's annual report, there is a balance of $7.7 million after expenditures. And there is a total of $290,000 in grants that were awarded. One would not expect the institute to be a full force when combatting the tremendous amount of social problems that undoubtedly exist in all Native American communities. Therefore, it would make more sense if a much greater amount be distributed to professional services, in the form of grants, to aid in meeting the immediate needs of tribal communities that are represented in the schools, whether that is students, faculty and staff. Donors do not give with the mind set that their contributions are meant to be used next year or in the next five years, rather to meet the immediate needs. Perhaps the Board needs to invite more the community members, anti-drug, gang and alcoholism project personnel, high school counselors, and staff of health programs to form a greater circle of partners and determine where those dollars lying in coffers should go. You can be certain that the unmet needs to combat social ills that are a detriment to a sound education will be easily identified.

kbearchief's picture
Submitted by kbearchief on
Pffffftt… its a fundraising campaign built on lies and half truths. School President Tyrell even admits that, "In our curriculum, we are open to other faiths. Our services are Catholic, and we do make our kids go to mass on Sunday." Isn't that a violation of the child's civil rights? I think so. Further, this school faced dozens of lawsuits for childhood sexual abuse; however the attorney for the school, Steve Smith managed to amend South Dakota's Statute of Limitations for childhood sex abuse which resulted in absolutely every Sioux/Dakota lawsuit to be dismissed due to his successful amendment to the law. There is so much more going on here at this school than the public realizes, hidden sex abuse allegations, fraudulent donation practices, and racist attitudes hidden behind clever words and manipulation. If I were a member of any tribe near St. Joseph's Indian School, I would never send my children there. Basically the school's moto is to "Save the Man and to kill the Indian" which is what forced religion has always done to us.

hesutu's picture
Submitted by hesutu on
This is a really good interview by Christina Rose. This is what actual journalism is supposed to look like. I also appreciate that the school President was willing to answer these questions.

etavonni's picture
Submitted by etavonni on
St. Joseph’s Indian School Has NOT Learned a Lesson About Fund-raising Read more at I started getting mailings a year or so ago. There were Christmas stamps, calendar, dream catcher, etc. I was upset about all the "gifts" and wanted to know if this was a legitimate Catholic organization. So, I called and asked questions. Mostly, "how much of my donation goes to the children and how much goes to mailings". I told them that I would send a blanket or shoes or whatever if they send the size. I still get the mailings. I got a mailing a week ago with all the "gifts" in it, then a follow up letter asking if I got the dream catcher and of course a plea for money. I think that these people ar dishonest, , they did say in one mailing that the dream catchers were made m by the children. They also talk about children that don't have good clothes and all the needs of a child. I truly believed that these children were living in abject poverty. I agree with Chairwoman Sazue, with 50 million coming in, 30 million spent, where is the other millions going?

Pamela Sue Chandler- Post
Pamela Sue Chan…
Submitted by Pamela Sue Chan… on
I just got one of these mailers from them today, September 8th 2015, so apparently they have not learned their lesson!

CombatMedic's picture
Submitted by CombatMedic on
Lesson Learned? I don't think so. I just received their mailing today and was about to make a substantial donation after reviewing all the materials enclosed. Fortunately, I decided to check further and determined that they have not made disclosure to the BBB and therefore have not been accredited. Then I saw the CNN investigation in 2014 which revealed their "over the top" fundraising with a third of proceeds going to the fundraiser they hired. They must also spend a ton of money on these mailings. As a disabled Vietnam Combat Medic, retired from a Federal Government 36 year career, I was quite saddened to think that I had almost been duped. I like to see good in everyone, but these are the things that make my blood boil. I would love to know the salaries of tnose in charge. They collected $51million last year and provide for 200 children in their school! They should be ashamed of themselves. There are so many worthwhile charities. People need to check them out before donating.

chmegma's picture
Submitted by chmegma on
this place is a huge scam. they do not care one bit about the money you send. my mother in law used to send these people money until we got ahold of her finances. i told them to stop sending me their ridculous info after seeing the expose about their kickbacks from the company that makes the crap they send. they told me they will keep me in their system for 3 months, even though i will not send them a dime. they know this and will not even try to stop this stuff from coming to me. if they do, they do not get their kickback a complete joke of a charity edit 12/8/15: now they sold my info to another scam of a charity and they are sending me stuff!!! like i said, they care nothing about the school or kids, only the kickbacks for the crap they send.

Yasaf's picture
Submitted by Yasaf on
St. Joseph School raise funds similar to most other human service organizations with a broad spectrum of services. Trust me, I once worked for Starr Commonwealth and it sustained a continuous effort to raise funds to augment operating costs and build its endowment. If someone seriously has an issue with generally accepted fundraising standards, then it's a straw man argument and fueled by flawed logic. However, it's easy to understand why some people would pose questions. The real answer is simple. Do what I did. Go to and review information on St. Joseph or any other charitable organization filing IRS 990's as required annually. Thank you.