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.”