When a Fort Belknap teenager shot himself in March of last year, he left a note telling those who loved him that they shouldn't start wondering why.

“He was always such a happy person,” said a close friend, Maribeth Rider, a 15-year-old freshman at Harlem High School. “If he ever had a problem, he would never let you see it.”

She and the rest of his friends will always regret that he kept his guard so high.

“He could have found another way by talking about it with us, 'cause we were there for him,” said Emma Lame Bull, another 15-year-old freshman.

After the shock wore off, and after the mourning started, that tragic event engendered a new conversation among the youth on the north-central Montana reservation.

“Friends told friends that if anything is bothering you, come to us,” Rider said.

“It's like we've got your back,” Lame Bull agreed.

“Ever since it happened, they talk it out instead,” Rider continued. “We don't want this to happen again.”

“They don't have to take that route,” Lame Bull said. “It just hurts those left behind.”

That's what tribal leaders, health-care professionals, educators and others striving to find ways to save kids' lives want them to do — talk to each other, help each other and stand by each other.

The girls were in Billings in mid February for a suicide prevention conference sponsored by the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Association program “Planting Seeds of Hope.”

Like many others who attended the meeting from reservations in Montana and Wyoming, they have been wounded by suicide.

“It's like a spirit that torments you — a joker or a clown,” said Teton Magpie, 17, a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and a junior at St. Labre Indian School. “I've heard some people say after a suicide that they saw a clown at the person's door the day before. It's the clown that puts you in a dark place and makes you want to commit suicide. Your friends can help you, but you need to get rid of the clown yourself.”

Dante Stands Over Bull, a 16-year-old sophomore at Plenty Coups High School, first encountered that dark place more than a year ago while living with his mother on a reservation in South Dakota.

“My mom, she was drinking and we got into a fight and said all kinds of mean things,” the lanky athlete said. “I got mad and it looked like the best answer at the moment.”

He grabbed a bottle of pain pills and took them, hoping not to wake up. Before they took effect, his mother approached him and apologized.

“Then I thought about what I just did,” he said.

The pills didn't kill him; he got help in time. But the misery remained.

Life with his mother was not easy when she was drinking. She could be abusive, he said, throwing things at him and hurling invective that struck directly at the heart.

“She told me it was my fault and that I was mean to her,” he said.

That was the second time he contemplated suicide.

“I sat there looking at the scissors on the stereo,” he said. “But my dad, he really is a wise man, he told me you have to be smart in the head and things will work out. And that's what I try to be. I can love my mom, but not let it hold me back from life.”

Her accusation still haunt. He was his mother's only child and he was a little spoiled, Stands Over Bull says almost apologetically.

“I was mean,” he said. “I didn't want to be around her when she was drinking.”

He tries to understand his mom. Her own mother died when she was a teenager, and the way she coped with loss was to drink, he said.

“We all have ways to adapt to life,” Stands Over Bull said. “Hers was alcohol.”

It seems a long time ago, now that he is safe and happy and living with his uncle at Pryor. He's on the basketball team at school, has joined Indian Club and has won awards and praise for his artwork. Someday he may use his talent to become an architect.

He credits his uncle for his present happiness.

“He tells me to stand up straight, think about what you're doing, to be kind, to be a good person,” Stands Over Bull said.

He found a safe place to be — where from his new perspective, suicide looks like giving in and giving up. He has too much to look forward to now to even consider suicide an answer. College and a successful career shine through the receding darkness.

Magpie and his friend, 17-year-old Kenneth Beartusk, want other children to have a refuge, too. The two are neighbors “over the hill” in Lame Deer and have shared the loss of friends to suicide. Beartusk's cousin, an eighth-grader, took his own life a year ago.

“He got trapped and stuck on the reservation for eternity,” Magpie said. “I wish he could have seen the outside world.”

The two friends are promoting peer counseling as a way to get their friends and classmates to seek help when the clown is waiting outside their door. They've gone a step further and helped convince the Northern Cheyenne tribal council to provide a teen center through the Boys and Girls Club at Lame Deer.

Magpie said it will be a double-wide mobile home stocked with food, video games and television. At first it will be open as a place for teens to gather in a healthy environment after school and in the evenings.

A basement will be poured before the double-wide is moved on site. It should be in place by the end of April. Magpie and Beartusk hope that it will eventually also be a refuge for teens trying to survive a disfunctional homelife.

“It's a place they can go to sleep at night and don't have to worry about being beaten up,” he said.

But the tribal Youth Council has even grander ideas.

“We want to build a big place where everybody, from anywhere, can come when they are feeling that pain,” he said.

It wouldn't be a place where kids would be told what they have to do, Magpie said. It would be a safe haven to work through the dark spirits with the encouragement of those around them.

The teenagers interviewed at the conference are all college-bound and have career plans that shine at the end of any dark tunnels they encounter. Lame Bull and Rider aim for careers in medical fields. Stands Over Bull hopes to use his artistic talent in architecture. Beartusk wants to earn a degree in computer engineering or computer science. Magpie is looking at the Ivy League and a degree in mechanical engineering.

They all know they are the lucky ones, with strong spirits and high goals. Each sincerely regrets that friends and family members who have taken their own lives won't be around to pursue their journeys together.

Right now, Stands Over Bull is sticking like glue to a person close to him who is battling through circumstances that seem hopelessly beyond his control.

“At first I didn't know what to say,” he said. “But I thought of how I'd miss him, how I'd miss him every day. I stay by his side and we talk. Together we can do anything.”

Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com

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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com