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'Poverty porn' helps school get millions
07:20 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

St. Joseph's Indian School raises over $50 million annually from donations

It sends waves of mailings across the country asking for help

A Native American leader denounces the tactics, calling them "poverty porn"

The school admits that the author of a begging letter does not exist

Chamberlain, South Dakota CNN  — 

The boy’s stories are heartbreaking: “My dad drinks and hits me … my mom chose drugs over me … my home on the reservation isn’t a safe place for me to be,” wrote Josh Little Bear. His request seems reasonable – send a few dollars to help St. Joseph’s Indian School to keep “kids like me safe … so we don’t have to live this way anymore.”

The story, begging for help, is part of massive national marketing campaign involving 30 million pieces of a mail a year. And it’s a successful one, raising more than $50 million last year.

But Josh Little Bear doesn’t exist. It’s not just a pseudonym to protect a child. The story is a fabrication, a compiling of events that may or may not have happened to paint a broad picture that Native American leaders say does not exist.

Flags fly at the entrance to St. Joseph's Indian School.

Officials at St. Joseph’s Indian School – a 200-person boarding school in Chamberlain, South Dakota, that’s affiliated with a Roman Catholic charity based in Wisconsin – say they send out waves of mailings three or four times a year.

The latest, a Christmas-oriented mailer, was sent in early November, according to the school’s director of communications.

The packets include 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.

The Christmas appeal introduced “Emily High Elk.” A year ago when her family brought her to the school, the letter says, “(y)ou could see the hopelessness she felt in her dark brown eyes.”

Now, the letter goes on, “her big bright smile reveals how her life has changed.”

Children walk through the school after classes.

But again, “Emily High Elk,” is more than a pseudonym. The girl whose life is described in the letter does not 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.”

The letter, he added, “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.” He said it wasn’t the “intention to disparage in any way the Native American community.”

A sculpture of a teepee at St. Joseph's Indian School.

But some Native Americans say there is deliberate disparagement and that it’s a marketing technique. A half-hour drive away from St. Joseph’s is the Crow Creek Lakota Sioux reservation in central South Dakota, where its vice chairman, Leonard Pease, scoffed at the fundraising letter.

“That’s how they get their money,” he told CNN. “To me, they make the Indians look bad.”

Michael Roberts, president of the First Nations Development Institute that aims to strengthen and support Native communities, went further. He termed the fundraising letter and the admission that the child is nonexistent as “poverty porn.”

“They are raising money in the name of Indians, using the worst of poverty porn of all Indian country to raise money on all our social ills,” said Roberts, whose Colorado-based group represents six Native American nonprofit organizations.

It seems that the money being raised is being used for the right reasons, as far as CNN could see. 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.

A view of the campus of St. Joseph's Indian School, on the banks of the Missouri River.

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.

According to its own financial statement for 2013, St. Joseph’s has abundant assets. Cash on hand was listed at more than $122 million in June 2013, an increase of more than $18.5 million over the previous year.