A Web site soliciting funds using images of Cheyenne River Sioux tribal Head Start children in its sales pitch to potential donors has disappeared from the Internet.
It was immediately taken off a free Web host after a tribal member disputed claims made and expressed her disapproval of use of her relatives as part of its content.
Meanwhile, tribal officials are investigating the site and another, linked site, along with accusations a 41-year-old former Head Start teacher placed it on the Internet.
Families in Red Scaffold said the site allegedly was initiated by long-standing Head Start teacher Josee Bald Eagle, a white woman originally from Belgium who married tribal member David Bald Eagle, now in his 80s.
The site appeared as a link to a KOLA site, a fund-raising effort reportedly founded in Eagle Butte in 1994. The KOLA Web site which lists other references to those living in the Red Scaffold community includes links tied to the organization’s own agendas, purported historical information and sales of crafts apparently geared at collecting funds from abroad.
Bald Eagle said in an interview that she wasn’t responsible for the site, claiming someone else placed the page on the Web. The teacher, who has lived on the reservation for 28 years, said her job is on the line and she was dismissed from her position in June because of the accusations.
Residents in the Red Scaffold community said the money was never used for the Head Start program, health-related programs or for the elderly, all included as places where donor money or donations in kind might be used.
In addition, tribal members suggested the entire site was a scam since the money was clearly directed to the equivalent of American post office boxes and foreign bank accounts.
Tribal Chairman Gregg Bourland confirmed that the site, and several others that have surfaced, are under investigation and that Josee Bald Eagle was dismissed from her job in connection with the site.
“I’ve done nothing wrong. Someone else put it up. I don’t know who did it, but it has hurt me, too,” said Bald Eagle.
“I know they are upset. I feel I have been a victim. We are all victims.”
Michelle White Wolf-Render, who is in the military, said she saw her nephew’s photo on the Web site and wrote to those soliciting donations on behalf of the tribal members and Head Start children, saying the information on the site was misleading.
“I think the only reason KOLA would want that information pulled from the site is because the parents of those children who are listed on the Web page are outraged,” she wrote.
She disputed the claims the Web site made concerning children having an extraordinarily high rate of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – 90 percent.
“It is true that on our reservation there are some cases, but very few. “I think that none of the Red Scaffold Head Start Students have FAS. Mrs. Bald Eagle’s job as a teacher for this program may be on the line for now. The tribal chairman, council, and education department are aware of this “begging on the Internet,” Render wrote.
“I am only trying to make the information right for the sake of my people. It is not in our nature to beg this way. We have too much pride. Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has its own Web site. Contact them as soon as possible,” White Wolf-Render wrote to the fund-raising organization.
The response was from a Les Ellingham, who e-mailed her on behalf of the group, saying KOLA had made honest mistakes on a leaflet and had withdrawn it. He indicated that KOLA officials had set up “a meeting of the parents board, the head start staff, and representatives of the tribal council to clear up the situation.”
But Bourland said nobody from the organization has contacted his office to arrange any such meeting.
“This has got to stop. They’re exploiting our children. I have grandchildren attending the Red Scaffold School. We all know for a fact our children are not FAS-FAE. The school is run by federal funds and the tribe’s the grantee, overseer of this program. As a member of the CRST, a parent and grandmother, I am really upset about this,” said Lynda White Wolf.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion when one of my relatives told me about all the fund-raising being done without the consent of my relatives in Red Scaffold, S.D., said Marlene Bear Stops. “My relatives had told me they are very upset about all the fraudulent activity being done in their names. I feel that no one should take advantage of children and elders. We must be truly the last frontier in this computerized world. My relatives and I come from great chiefs who were really truly concerned for the health, welfare, integrity and pride of their people.
“I was really angry when I saw them on the Internet,” said Mashawn White Wolf. “The CRST Council and the tribal attorneys should do something besides just having the tribal police department do a criminal investigation. Our children are being misrepresented. These are our future leaders.
“This Josee Bald Eagle never asked for permission to use our children’s names or pictures.”
Elderly residents said their names were tied to the fund-raisers and they never granted permission for the organization to use them nor did they endorse their efforts. Nearly half a dozen senior citizens said they had never received anything from the organization, but their names appeared on the Web site that requested donations on their behalf.
District Chairman Randall Knife said he was angry that tribal members are being used to solicit funds. “Something needs to be done about this.”
Bourland admits policing the bogus sites is nearly impossible because they are too numerous and prosecuting scams on the Internet, on an international level, poses an entirely new set of challenges.
Even so, officials at the U.S. Attorney’s office said such sites siphoning money from potential benefactors could be prosecuted under laws for penalties against wire fraud, but it would require an investigation by the FBI before any charges would be initiated.
“Because it crosses international lines we feel it’s totally outside our jurisdiction. We’re more or less witnesses or victims,” Bourland said. We’re still debating trying to figure out how to go about this. I’m not terribly certain anyone knows how to address this. The Internet is the Internet. Anyone can put anything they want on the Internet and unfortunately many people take it as the gospel truth. It is really a sad state of affairs.”
Adding to tribal officials’ dismay, some people listed on the site are people they simply don’t know.
“There is a sense of frustration because we are not sure who these people are, why they have done what they have done. We’re not sure if they have received anything so the only thing we can do is put forward a policy on the tribe’s official Web site saying that anyone using our logo or any affiliation to us has to be authorized. Other than that there is very little else we can do,” the tribal chairman said.
Potential gift-givers might want to research further before sending any money on the behalf of reservation communities which have become easy prey as direct marketing has moved to the Internet.
“We’re making a statement to unsuspecting consumers out there that unless the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe endorses it, then don’t buy into it. We’re saying if you go to their Web site and they are making a claim about the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, visit our Web site and if it isn’t on there, don’t buy it,” Bourland said.
Troubling to Bourland is the number of people taking advantage of the Sioux culture and touting themselves as medicine men. The tribe gets dozens of inquiries from non-Indians, including some abroad, asking about individuals who are claiming to be shaman, he said.
“We’re concerned about the cultural aspect. We’re not responsible for the actions of people making bogus claims about religion. Believe me, we wind up with a lot of e-mail on this. Many medicine men are claiming to be Lakota medicine men, but they are people nobody has ever heard of. This has been going on for years and years,” he said.
Today the Internet has led an explosion of such exploits and readers on the Internet will have to be wary of claims and find out from a bona fide source, Bourland said.
While the tribe decides how it will deal with the issue, Bald Eagle, the lone wage earner in her household, is awaiting an appeal hearing to determine if she will be reinstated.
While the site in question went down, KOLA still lists projects such as the Wakanyeja Project Bourland disputes as legitimate.
“I’ve never heard of it,” he said.