Fake Letters From Fictitious Native American Children Are A Corrupt Way To Raise School Funds

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A Roman Catholic boarding school for Native American children admits to using fake student names and stories in mailings to entice millions of dollars in donations each year. While raising money for kids in need is a great cause, doing it through boldfaced lies and the exploitation of an entire culture is unacceptable.

Chances are that mixed in with your snail mail over the years you’ve received a letter from St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota asking for a donation. These requests typically come with a calender, stickers, a dreamcatcher and a handwritten styled letter signed by a purported student, complete with photo. The letters tell a heartbreaking story of a child born into abuse and addiction and go a long way towards making you want to donate:

Last month, St. Joseph’s Indian School sent out a holiday mailing asking for donations with a letter from “Emily High Elk” claiming a similar tale of woe. The fundraising campaign works. Last year the school raised $51 million dollars through donations in response to these mailings. Which is great for the kids at the school. The only problem is that these children and their biographies don’t actually exist.

CNN decided to look into the matter. The contacted the school’s director of development, Kory Christianson, who wrote a letter admitting that the student “Little Bear” was fake. Christianson said the plea for assistance, “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.”

CNN reporters also visited the school, and were given a tour of the grounds. They found the facilities were well maintained and the children there seemed happy and well cared for. The fact that this school operates and the children there are thriving should be enough in and of itself to market for donations.

Some Native Americans are not happy with St. Joseph’s tactics. CNN reached out to Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute, an organization that aims to strengthen and support Native communities. Roberts referred to the letter and tactics used by St. Joseph’s school as “poverty porn.”

It would be easy to say that the methods used by St. Joseph’s are justified because the funds are being used to care for children. And yes, the mailings do say that the child’s name has been changed, though a disclaimer stating, “The existence of this child has been created to protect the school’s financial interest” would probably be more accurate. But while the money doesn’t seem to be misappropriated, using emotionally manipulative letters to raise funds is morally wrong. And the contents of these letters, which are sent all over the country, perpetuate Native American stereotypes in the worst possible way, making them seen like little more than abusive alcoholics who’s youth needs to be saved.

It’s a great thing when someone is willing to donate money for a cause, and that generosity should be respected, not preyed upon.