BILLINGS - Northern Cheyenne tribal members have accused the tribal council of mishandling an $11 million settlement with the St. Labre Indian School that ended a lawsuit about claims that the school inappropriately marketed the tribe's poverty for school fundraising.
A 2014 resolution from the tribal council obtained by The Gazette shows previously unreleased details about the settlement, reached the same year. The tribe received $6 million in payments from St. Labre in 2014 and will receive an additional $1 million each year through 2019.
But tribal members who are camped outside a tribal building in Lame Deer to protest tribal council actions say the money has been deposited into a permanent fund by the council, where it is ill-suited for helping many desperate residents of the reservation.
“That money is rightfully ours, the peoples’,” said Northern Cheyenne Chief Leroy Pine, one of several Cheyenne chiefs. “It does not belong in permanent funds. It does not belong in their pockets.”
Tribal President Llevando Fischer’s office said that the tribe can’t comment on the settlement. Diocese of Great Falls-Billings officials referred requests for comment to a lawyer who did not return a phone message Wednesday afternoon. Part of the settlement prohibits the tribe from discussing the settlement with the media.
More than a dozen protesters were gathered outside the building Sunday afternoon to voice their concerns about the settlement and tribal government. They preferred to see funds disbursed directly to tribal members, who they said are the people directly harmed by the school.
“They’re hiding the money from the people,” said Pauline High Wolf, who helped organize the protest. “Our people are sick and tired of their behavior.”
Protesters were also angry about what they called a lack of transparency in settling the lawsuit.
The civil suit, filed in 2005, accuses the school, the Roman Catholic Church and the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings of "unjust enrichment" for marketing the tribe's poverty through lucrative fundraising efforts, then failing to share its gains with the Northern Cheyenne people.
The tribe had also alleged that the school and church committed fraud, breach of contract and cultural genocide.
A Yellowstone County district judge dismissed the suit, but the tribe appealed, and in 2013 the Montana Supreme Court reversed parts of the lower court's ruling, which revived the suit in district court but did say the tribe had failed to prove allegations of breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, fraud and wrongful conversion and threw out claims of cultural genocide.
In the resolution, the tribe dismissed claims except those of unjust enrichment. The settlement dictates that the tribe will pass a resolution saying that St. Labre’s current fundraising is appropriate, and that the tribe will never claim St. Labre’s occupancy, land use or use of “any names, stories, images, symbols” was inappropriate, so long as St. Labre makes its scheduled payments.
The school will also be required to pay the tribe $60,000 per year starting in December 2020 for each year it remains at its location.
The school consistently denied any wrongdoing, maintaining that it provides a free, high-quality education and social services to American Indian children and families
Several of the protesters who said that they attended St. Labre maintained claims of cultural oppression and abuse.
Delberta Eagleman, a grandmother, is raising four children; none of the children's parents offer support. With school approaching, those children need supplies and new clothes that many on the reservation can’t afford, she said, arguing that settlement money could help keep struggling people afloat.
“Even requesting assistance from the tribe ... we get told, ‘when there’s money available, you can put in a request,” she said. “No one is listening at the Bureau (of Indian Affairs) and no one is listening at the tribal council.”
Protesters also called for the wholesale scrapping of the tribal council as set up by the Indian Reorganization Act and tribal constitution that was adopted in 1936 and amended several times, first in 1960. Pine said that oral traditions say that the agreement was essentially a 50-year experiment — which has failed miserably.
The reservation, like many across the U.S., is plagued by chronic unemployment, drug use and education problems.
“We were told that this form of government was supposed to help progress us as a people,” said Elijah Wallowing, a Salish Kootenai College student. “We’ve been patient. (But) this system no longer benefits or helps the people.”
“We, as Cheyenne, know what’s best for us.”
Wallowing and others advocate falling back on tribal traditions.
“We’re not going back to the old days with teepees and bows and arrows,” Pine said. “I hate those remarks.”
Instead, protesters proposed a referendum-based system in which all tribal members would be able to vote on issues. Traditional social structures, with chiefs guiding tribal bands supported by members from military societies, would help stabilize the reservation, they said.
“As the chiefs, our concern is the people, and their welfare,” Robert Little Wolf, a tribal leader.
Protesters said they would appeal to the federal government to scrap the current system.
Many of the complaints about the tribal government aren’t new.
“There’s a lot of corruption with the tribe,” said Calvin Brudy, a 67-year-old tribal member.
Many complained that those who signed petitions often lost government jobs, that BIA police used brutal tactics and that council members were often inaccessible and wasted tribal money on fruitless long-distance trips. High Wolf said that many requests for information and documents had been denied or ignored.
Marlene Redneck served on the tribal council but chose not to seek re-election in 2014.
“I got really disillusioned and disappointed,” she said, especially citing a lack of long-term vision by the tribal council. “Where are we gonna be 10 years from now?”