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St. Labre Indian School

The St. Labre Indian School in Ashland.

A settlement agreement has been reached between the Northern Cheyenne and St. Labre Indian School that could end a decadelong court battle over allegations that the Catholic mission school reaped millions in fundraising dollars by exploiting the tribe.

The parties agreed to settle last month during a Dec. 2 hearing in Yellowstone County Court before District Judge Mary Jane Knisely, court records show. The agreement has not yet been finalized, records indicate.

Attorneys representing the parties either declined to comment or did not return calls this week.

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.

Officials for the school and church have fiercely denied the allegations, according to court documents and earlier media reports.

At one point, a different Yellowstone County district judge dismissed the suit, saying the tribe had failed to produce any evidence suggesting wrongdoing by the school.

The tribe appealed, and in 2013 the Montana Supreme Court reversed parts of the lower ruling, which revived the suit in district court.

St. Labre was founded in 1884 as a Catholic boarding school for American Indians. Today, the school enrolls more than 750 students, preschool through 12th grade, across three campuses in southeastern Montana. Its Ashland location adjacent to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation is the largest and includes a dormitory for students who live far from the school.

For decades the school has been financed by a highly successful direct mail campaign that used tribal imagery and identity in its materials. Gifts and fundraising efforts brought in $38.2 million in 2012, financial reports show. Its assets totaled $80.2 million.

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The lawsuit contends that the school has not redistributed an equitable portion of the millions it gathered through the fundraising.

St. Labre has maintained that it provides a free, high-quality education and social services to American Indian children and families.

A similar suit was filed in 2002 but tribal officials asked a judge to dismiss it, according to earlier media reports.

Northern Cheyenne President Llevando Fisher did not respond to requests for comment. He was elected in fall 2013 after the previous president was removed from office.

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