I recently received a letter in the mail from the American Indian Relief Council, signed by
Brian J. Brown. Maybe you have too. Mine was printed on bright yellow paper, and goes like this, except that it is printed in ALL CAPS:
Dear Mr. Johnson,
A true emergency may soon confront the Indian people here on the Sioux reservations of South Dakota.
As you know, Americans in the cold-weather regions of our nation have seen heating fuel costs spiral out of control.
Here inIndian countryon the northern plains — with winters that can be as bitter as most anywhere in the world — this can be a matter of life and death.
The cost of propane fuel — which is used by most of the people on our reservations who have any heat at all in their homes — has climbed every year.
And experts are already predicting even higher prices this year — which were already too expensive for thousands of Sioux families.
… undsowie. I’m used to getting lots of junk mail from non-profits, and I’m used to high-pressure sales tactics; if I think the cause is worthy I usually pass over it in silence and put myself down for a small contribution. But a couple of things raised an eyebrow: the sheer intensity of the high-pressure pitch (escalated by the sensationalistic use of the phrase
freeze to death, emphasized just like that, three times in the course of the letter), my unfamiliarity with the organization, the fact that they were a subsidiary
council of a suspiciously vague-sounding charitable organization rather than an independent organization exclusively concerned with a specific group of Indians, and a number of small signs (starting with President Brian J. Brown) that this might not be an organization directed by the Lakota Indians themselves. So I checked up on them through Google. It’s a good thing I did: the American Indian Relief Council is using high-pressure sales tactics because they are swindlers. They sound like they aren’t run by Lakota Indians because they aren’t run by Lakota Indians. If you like throwing your money away on white people’s comfortable offices, then by all means give it to them. Otherwise, don’t.
Here’s the breakdown on AIRC, courtesy of In These Times (April 2001). Emphasis is added:
Charitable organizations are latching on to Native American causes because they are an easy sell. Americans feel guilty about their nation’s treatment of Native peoples, and they give money with the intention of correcting history’s wrongdoings, says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.These charities exploit the tremendous reservoir of goodwill that exists worldwide for Indian people,agrees Vernon Bellecourt, an American Indian Movement leader.
… One rogue charity, the Rapid City, South Dakota-based American Indian Relief Council (AIRC), gained notoriety in the early ’90s when it was accused of dumping useless textbooks and outdated gardening seeds on the Sioux reservation as part of its relief program. One of the AIRC’s largest services was its employment-training program, which consisted of hiring Native Americans to make fundraising calls. Employees blew the whistle on the organization’s dubious fundraising pitches, which they said were manipulative exaggerations and lies. They complained that the money the AIRC raised for Native Americans wasn’t making it to the reservations.
Eventually the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office sued the AIRC in 1993 for lying to donors about certain reservations, claiming they were hit by catastrophic natural disasters and needed funds to prevent famine and death. The lawsuit also charged that the AIRC overvalued the prices of goods it donated to tribes—like the expired seeds—listing them at market value. In 1999, AIRC President Brian Brown settled the lawsuit and agreed to pay the state $350,000.
But instead of shutting down the AIRC, Brown—who had previously been sued by the attorneys general of Connecticut and Pennsylvania in 1991 for inflating commodity values and deceiving donors—discreetly downsized the group’s South Dakota operations and shifted its focus to the American Southwest. The AIRC has been born anew under a different parent organization, National Relief Charities (NRC), which operates two new subsidiaries—the Council of Indian Nations and Southwest Indian Relief—in Apache Junction, Arizona. Brown keeps a low profile in his current office, tucked away in a nondescript industrial park outside of Portland, Oregon.
However, the charity’s makeover is entirely superficial. The NRC is still distributing a pitiful portion of its revenues to the constituency it purports to serve. According to the NRC’s 1999 federal tax filings, it earned more than $8.3 million in donations last year, but only 30 percent was spent on programs. In contrast, Brown’s salary has hovered at about $120,000 for the past two years. The National Charities Information Bureau, an Arlington, Virginia-based watchdog group, suggests charities should spend a minimum of 60 percent of total expenditures on programs and services, with the available balance going to fundraising and administration.
In case you were wondering, their 2004 Form 990 reports that they raised $17,494,328 in revenue in 2004, and their spending on programs and services had climbed … to 50.6%. President Brian Brown raked in $168,669.
Where you can give
The bad news is that although AIRC are a pack of flim-flam men profiting off the penury of others, Plains Indians are facing a real crisis from the spike in propane heating costs. We’ve had the good fortune of an unusually mild winter this year, but that good fortune only goes so far.
The good news is that it’s not all bad news. There are lots of scamsters out there looking for a quick buck from you, and an increasing number are using sympathy for American Indians to get it. But there are also lots of good folks, many of them living on or by the reservation, providing real mutual aid who could benefit from whatever help you can offer. The best place to start is by finding groups directly associated with the actual reservations, and directed by the Indians that they claim to benefit. That is to say, by finding efforts that have more to do with mutual aid and less to do with the pretense of charity for
others. As an example,
here’s what I found, with the help of Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation, for groups on the Pine Ridge Reservation (home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe) that are helping folks out with heating costs this winter:
Update 2006-10-06: Last year I listed a number of groups, including Cangleska, Inc., OST Healthy Start, PTI Propane, and Bob’s Gas Service, which offered help with heating costs in Winter 2005. I recently got a note from Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation pointing out that this information is out-dated for Winter 2006. Since the information and the groups offering help change so often, the best thing for you to do is check out the latest information from the Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation
Lend a Hand with Utilities page.
I’m sending $20 by PayPal to the Cangleska shelter tonight. (In case you’re interested, I found Cangleska’s Form 990 for 2004; it reports $2,815,490 in expenditures with $2,730,924 on services, meaning that 97% of expenditures go directly to services.) Please do give what you can. It’s important. And, as I was reminded tonight, it’s also important to keep an eye out for those who exploit our sympathy for the poor and suffering in order to make a fast buck. There is real need out there; unfortunately need all too often draws scamsters like circling vultures. You can help out; just make sure that you check up to find out who it is that you’re helping.