State of Despair

'I didn't think he would do it,' mother says

2013-04-01T00:15:00Z 2014-08-25T07:44:33Z 'I didn't think he would do it,' mother saysBy CINDY UKEN cuken@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

GARRYOWEN — Many American Indians, particularly those on the Crow Reservation, are taught by their elders not to invoke the name of loved ones who have died.

They believe they are not really gone. Their spirit lives on in the “Other Side Camp.”

Jackie YellowTail dares to break the Crow taboo by calling out the name of her dead son. She wants to break the stigma of suicide, especially on Indian reservations.

“Even though the tradition of not saying my baby’s name is there, these stories need to come out so that our children can be educated and our adults can be made aware,” YellowTail said. “They can be educated so that another mother doesn’t have to go through this.”

Despite living in Indian Country where suicide rates are epidemically high, YellowTail said that until her 16-year-old son killed himself she knew no one who had committed suicide. She was ignorant of the warning signs.

"I'm not saying my son was mentally ill," YellowTail said. "I'm saying he had problems."

The problems stemmed primarily from growing pains, YellowTail said. 

As such, she sought help from the Indian Health Service. She entrusted educational leaders at St. Labre Indian Catholic High School, a private, Roman Catholic boarding school in Ashland, with her son’s care.

Both, she said, disappointed her.

“I’m not blaming them,” YellowTail said. “I’m just saying I don’t think they did their job in a thorough manner.”

Her son, Lance Bird in Ground, shot himself in the head with a .22-caliber hunting rifle on Jan. 28, 2001. He was 16. It was a Sunday night about 9:15.

The teen, who was beginning to take an interest in girls, wanted to go into Crow Agency with his buddies, cruise and flirt. He asked to borrow either his father’s pickup truck or his mother’s Camaro. Both refused.

The 15-minute argument he had with his mother at about 8:45 p.m. was emotionally taxing. She had to work in the morning and told him she could not continue to argue and perhaps they could discuss it further the next day.

“I really didn’t pay attention when he said, ‘I might as well kill myself,’ ” YellowTail said. “I thought he was just mad. I didn’t think he would do it.”

It was one of several warning signs the 56-year-old mother of seven said she missed.

“I learned a lot since this happened to my baby,” she said. “Up to that point, I didn’t know the signs of suicide. I didn’t know the things I know today.”

After his death, a cousin told YellowTail that Bird in Ground had attempted suicide before, during his freshman year at boarding school. He attempted to overdose on aspirin, and no one from the school told her, she said.

Deb Cady, an administrative assistant at St. Labre, said she couldn't confirm that Bird in Ground had made a suicide attempt because records from his school days there are no longer available.

YellowTail now knows that previous suicide attempts are the biggest risk factor of a person successfully completing suicide.

And there were other signs of trouble. In March 2000, Bird in Ground had taken his mother’s car to go drinking with friends, leaving his parents to wonder where he was. When they finally found him, he bolted. It wasn’t until 4:30 a.m. the next day that they found him passed out drunk in a snow-covered ditch. They took him to the emergency room.

The attending physician made an appointment for an assessment with a tribal-run program to determine if Bird in Ground had a drinking problem. Program leaders assured YellowTail her son did not have an alcohol problem and advised that no follow-up was needed.

“I turned to the professionals for help for my son and I don’t believe he got that help,” she said. “They let me down. This is who we are as a people. I’m not blaming.”

It was one more sign YellowTail believes was ignored. Alcohol has long been known to play a role in suicides. About 7 percent of the suicides in Montana during 2010 and 2011 involved alcohol, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

Since her son’s death, YellowTail has made it her business to know about the warning signs and to speak candidly about suicide among American Indian youth.

“A lot of our children are falling between the cracks,” she said. “I believe that’s what happened to my baby.”

Indian Health Service officials declined to be interviewed. Officials would only answer questions that had been submitted in advance and refused to answer follow-up questions.

In a prepared response to Gazette questions, Hillary Corson, a behavioral health consultant for the Billings-area Indian Health Service, said risk factors occur both on and off the reservation.

"We consider suicides an emergency and as a result ... we've been focusing our efforts on our suicide prevention programs and initiatives in our tribal and urban communities," Corson said.

YellowTail said both Indian Health Service and the tribal court system are ill-prepared to address the suicide rate in Indian Country.

“I hate to be the person that says the glass is half empty but there is a lot of work that we as community members still need to do,” she said. “We don’t talk about it. That’s the start.”

Cindy Uken's reporting on Montana's suicide epidemic was undertaken with the help of a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.  

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(31) Comments

  1. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 06, 2013 5:35 am
    ...and to keep it in the clubhouse...
  2. facts and opinions
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    facts and opinions - April 05, 2013 11:20 pm
    You guys gotta learn to ignore.
  3. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 05, 2013 12:21 pm
    Some of them happened before I existed, many were not family members. "Ever look in the mirror and wonder why you are so disdainful?"
  4. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 05, 2013 12:20 pm
    Maybe god will speak to me about it. I'm listening.
  5. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 05, 2013 12:08 pm
    linderlu - parody isn't always pretty.
  6. lienka
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    lienka - April 05, 2013 11:08 am
    Dear Mr. rainbowed, you speak as a spoiled child, blaming everybody for its faults, and listening to anybody,and it´s too tiring for you even to think up about someones thoughts. You just need to speak to seem interesting and you even do not know what you are talking about. Therefore I have no hopes, you will bother to reflect about my words, but it is the demonstration of your intelligence.but you wanted to answer your question.well, the sad answer is, you need to get out your wrong image of God. I´m sure if God have made something you would blame him or you would IGNORE the good, even as if he have not done nothing you would blame him. You would blame him for anything but have you ever think about thank him that you can live, that he created you?Why God did not saved him? 1)He can still save his soul for heaven2)He is not a puppeteer nor slaver,to dominate somebody,but respects man´s free will.He don´t inflict osf on anybody, and he would have saved boy if he asked him.peace with ju
  7. unsuspecting
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    unsuspecting - April 04, 2013 7:22 am
    Hey rainbowed, Your statement: "As someone who has lost several loved ones to suicide....." makes me think I have an answer for you. Your family could possibly be hurt by a number of suicides because many of your family members are angry contemptuous mean spirited individuals just as you are. Ever look in the mirror and wonder why you are so disdainful? Maybe your family members looked in the mirror and knew they did not want to exist and become what you represent. Just a thought.


  8. linderlu
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    linderlu - April 03, 2013 6:13 pm
    rainbowed, you point out that laughter takes "cheapshots" that those who don't believe as she believes--yet you can't see that you are just as bad (if not far, far worse)?

    Hi pot, this is kettle. You're black.

    You manage to hijack so many conversations, saying basically the same thing. You can't even say it just once, you have to say essentially the same thing again and again. Just as laughter does with everyone he/she disagrees with.

    You believe what you believe. He/she believes what she believes. You aren't helping your point by doing it the way you are. You say laughter isn't taken seriously--you think you are? I've seen you make good points, the problem is they are all mashed up with the same negative comments about religion and they get lost.
  9. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 03, 2013 2:46 pm
    ROTFLMAO! Right back atcha hon... You might not have noticed, I don't try to silence the gay haters, though. Perhaps there is a reason why?
  10. bees
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    bees - April 03, 2013 10:12 am
    Remember -- your pointing finger? Has 3 pointing right back at you. Just saying....
  11. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 03, 2013 8:07 am
    It isn't just you. Pray on! If it helps you, good for you.

    Drag it out in public and you may get other perspectives. Just remember, the more you whine about that the more pathetic your faith looks.
  12. bees
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    bees - April 02, 2013 8:53 pm
    Rbe-- you say I "carried on about my belief". Where on this story! You are the one who pirated this woman's heartbreaking share with your rants and complaints. I will not be silenced by one who just spouts hate. If Jackie's family reads this thread, please know many of us ARE remembering her -- in prayers to God, The Great Spirit.
  13. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 02, 2013 11:00 am
    Our resident troll says "So you are now an expert on how it feels to lose someone to suicide because you are being challenged for your comments to disparage people for their faith?"

    Obviously as this question indicates suicide is no big deal in the christian world view. Not that all christians think that way, but the flippant "god bless" that is thrown out so regularly confirms this approach to "life" and premature death. Why would they be concerned when they believe the dead go to a "better" place? Many faiths tend to cheapen our lives on this earth in so many ways.
  14. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 02, 2013 9:58 am
    Speak away, I will not be whining about what you say...Just Saying.

    I'd even be willing to discuss it with you...Just Saying.

    Just not here, not appropriate, just like marketing one's magic santa in the sky isn't appropriate here. Gotta love them christian "values".
  15. MTBarrelRacer92
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    MTBarrelRacer92 - April 02, 2013 9:14 am
    "The subject would not come up with me if people learned to keep their faith to themselves" same goes for you and your gay rights spouts... Just Saying

  16. RightDog
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    RightDog - April 02, 2013 7:58 am
    So you are now an expert on how it feels to lose someone to suicide because you are being challenged for your comments to disparage people for their faith?

    Whenever there is an article or letter dealing with a tragedy you have to make an asinine comment to lamely try to flame people for having faith. Troll much?

    http://billingsgazette.com/news/local/benefit-concert-barbecue-set-to-help-wounded-navy-seal/article_88213e7e-0f0d-5eab-88af-e6f41725004c.html
  17. Jesus Tomatoes
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    Jesus Tomatoes - April 02, 2013 6:37 am
    Well said. RAmen!
  18. sarah lynn
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    sarah lynn - April 02, 2013 6:18 am
    Well put
  19. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 02, 2013 5:36 am
    As someone who takes cheapshots against anyone who she doesn't "approve" of, you are not taken seriously.

    As someone who has lost several loved ones to suicide, I find the god talk highly offensive as I watch humans waste major resources on mega churches and "magic" men in the sky when we could be doing more research into the biology of brain chemistry and how our drug problems impact the situation. Or working to change our culture to make drugs less attractive to children. I'd pray for you, but why waste time with concern for someone who doesn't deserve it.
  20. rainbowed
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    rainbowed - April 02, 2013 5:29 am
    I sure wish god could/would have saved him.

    Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/montana/i-didn-t-think-he-would-do-it-mother-says/article_2515e894-6f17-5019-a5e9-c7e2abfc8697.html#ixzz2PIwioUfv
  21. Laughter
    Report Abuse
    Laughter - April 02, 2013 12:14 am
    You use comments of concern mentioning God/prayer etc. as lead in's to make your sarcastic cheapshots against God and/or those believing in Him. While I don't believe you need to be censored for it you no doubt understand why more than a few don't take your "concern" and "caring" as anything near sincere and just brush you off as someone who will be a thoughtless jerk when he believes the opportunity presents itself to be one.
  22. neocon4hire
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    neocon4hire - April 01, 2013 6:23 pm
    rbe, you didn't you wished it hadn't happened... you just started out the gate with your bigotry....
  23. Chaak
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    Chaak - April 01, 2013 6:15 pm
    thank you for speaking out and sharing your loss.
  24. rainbowed
    Report Abuse
    rainbowed - April 01, 2013 5:00 pm
    TeresaML says "this is not the time or the place to start carrying on about what you do or don't believe". I couldn't agree more! I was curious which god bees is praying too, no need to waste my time on him because he doesn't appear to be doing anything good when prayed to. The subject would not come up with me if people learned to keep their faith to themselves. You do realize your comment would have more credibility if you were calling our bees for carrying on about what she believes? Major fail!
  25. TeresaML
    Report Abuse
    TeresaML - April 01, 2013 4:36 pm
    Jackie, thank you for sharing your story. I am sorry to hear of your loss. May your boy rest in peace.
  26. TeresaML
    Report Abuse
    TeresaML - April 01, 2013 4:30 pm
    Rainbowed, this is not the time or the place to start carrying on about what you do or don't believe. No one cares. Please be considerate of others and take it elsewhere.
  27. rainbowed
    Report Abuse
    rainbowed - April 01, 2013 4:12 pm
    Nothing to share?!?!! Wishing it hadn't happened is nothing? Why did you not want to answer the question? May the Flying Spaghetti Monster touch you with the peace and joy of His presence! RAmen.
  28. bees
    Report Abuse
    bees - April 01, 2013 2:41 pm
    I cannot believe you rbe! Jackie stepped beyond her beliefs to share -- If you have nothing to share? Why intrude your blinded hate? So very sad, peace to you.
  29. rainbowed
    Report Abuse
    rainbowed - April 01, 2013 12:16 pm
    Just curious, which god? I sure wish god could/would have saved him.
  30. bees
    Report Abuse
    bees - April 01, 2013 11:10 am
    Jackie, I am so very sorry for your heartbreaking loss and the hard memories you are sharing to try to help others. Cannot imagine your pain. You did everything you could, you set rules (for his own sake) and you took many steps to help him. I pray others will have their eyes opened to their own childrens 'signals' and reach out for the help out there - through your 'openess'. May GOD give you continued and hold you close.
  31. onenation
    Report Abuse
    onenation - April 01, 2013 10:23 am
    I am sorry for this mother's loss. Suicide is one of the most painful ways to loose a loved one. Looking for whom to "blame" is a common reaction to suicide and creates crippling guilt among those who knew the person who died. I don't think it is helpful nor accurate to point fingers at the agencies who are providing services. I personally know that many lives have been saved by these agencies who do respond to individuals in need due to suicidal ideation and attempts as well as problem drinking and drug use. Many are NOT falling through the cracks, but due to the stigma associated with suicide, few people will step forward and say that they were suicidal but were helped by these service agencies. Work together, people, instead of casting blame. Not everyone will be saved, but we can keep trying.

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