Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Wick Fisher
Moose Lake Star Gazette 

Those stories are very real

Wick's World


On November 17, CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” television show focused on my alma mater, St. Joseph’s Indian School located in Chamberlain, South Dakota. My mother spent 38 years at St. Joe’s as a counselor.

I felt the story was not fair and basically a misrepresentation of the facts for the purpose of sensational television. Instead of emphasizing the efficient, well-kept campus that provides care and education for Native American children, they focused on what they called “false sob stories to trick donors into giving money.”

In reality, CNN found no history of misuse of solicited funds and St. Joseph’s staff readily admitted the stories used for monetary solicitations contained fictitious names.

Although Emily High Elk and Josh Little Bear are not real people, they represent a composite of the lives of many of the students who attend the school. Rozlyn Quilt, a St. Joseph's attendee in 2009, spoke for many when she was quoted in the Chamberlain-Oacoma Sun, “As sad as it may sound, those stories are very real.”

Rozlyn is right, and anyone who attended the school, including myself, knows this. I attended the St. Joseph’s Indian School for one year in 1952. It was then, and still is, commonly called St. Joe’s by staff, students and members of the local community.

St. Joe’s is highly successful as a business. They are so large the small town of Chamberlain (2,000 people) designated a separate ZIP code for St. Joe’s. The cost of the over 30 million annual mailings takes a huge bite out of CNN’s representation of the $60 million St. Joe’s takes in from solicitations. Those mass mailings create jobs for local residents who appreciate St. Joe’s as one of the town’s largest employers.

Half a century after attending first grade, I still retain vivid memories of St. Joe’s. Some were good, some were not.

Built in 1909, the campus was the location of Columbus College, a boarding and prep school/college for Catholic boys. When the institution relocated to Sioux Falls, St. Joe’s had its beginning.

If “Anderson Cooper 360” was so bent on negativity surrounding St. Joe’s, he had plenty of ammunition to work with had he taken the time and effort to learn about the institution’s history. Like boarding schools around the country, the students were routinely punished for speaking their native tongue. Anything to do with indigenous culture was strongly discouraged.

I was barely 5 years old when I learned all about abuse and prejudice in this world. The only fellow student whose name I remember was the little girl who sat in front of me. Anna (not her real name) made the mistake of trying to tell her teacher she had to go to the bathroom. She could not speak English so her only alternative was to try to communicate in the Lakota language, a serious violation in itself. The inevitable happened. Anna was not only disciplined with the teacher’s yardstick, she was humiliated in front of the class when forced to clean up her own mess.

Fortunately, things have changed dramatically over the years. Following the protests of the '60s, treatment of African and Native Americans and women (among others) began to shift in American society. At St. Joe’s, students were encouraged to learn the traditions they had once been forced to abandon. My mother (Fish) and father (PaPa Smurf) became house parents as the former re-education camp changed its stripes. It became a more loving, caring home for thousands of St. Joseph’s graduates.

My mother, who also taught sewing and beading, was often rewarded over the years with (composite) letters like this from people like (fictitious) Angela White Elk: “Dear Fish, I just wanted you to know that I am getting married next week, and I made my own wedding dress. Thank you so much for all the things you taught me.”

I am concerned about CNN’s journalistic tactics. Why did CNN make it appear as though St. Joe’s has $122 million cash-on-hand sitting in its wallet? CNN did not make it clear the large monetary number tossed around includes the dormitories, chapel, dining hall, health center, playground and the spectacular Atka Lakota Museum and Cultural Center as part of the “$122 million cash on hand.” CNN reported a misrepresentation of the institution’s donor program, while misrepresenting the school’s assets. No parents, students or donors were interviewed. CNN was in and out of town in less than 24 hours. Was this simply another example of sensational entertainment posing as news?

I readily admit I often use composites in my current column, Wick’s World. For decades I had a column called Ask the Postmaster in which I answered questions sent in by postal customers. I often had to make up the question, as I generally did not receive many inquiries. Let me emphasize this: Every column contained a question that at one time or other had either been asked of me or another postmaster. I don’t think that made me any more dishonest than St. Joseph’s solicitations. We were both simply trying to inform the public.

If St. Joe’s was guilty of anything, it was the lack of a statement like this, “Our story is representative of many in our state today. The names are fictitious, but the stories and children are not.” I am certain the donation numbers would have been just as large.


Reader Comments

wiggy writes:

Wick; Good article. I never knew the history of St. Joes, Thanks for enlightening me. Sometimes you have to wonder about national news organizations use of slash and burn method of getting attention. Wiggy


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