Skip to main content

‘Lost Sparrow’ premiers Nov. 16 on PBS

When two young Crow Indian brothers ran away from their white adoptive family’s home and were killed by a freight train more than three decades ago, their deaths devastated the family and shocked the small community in upstate New York where they lived.

Filmmaker Chris Billing was 16 years old when his adopted Crow brothers Bobby, 13, and Tyler, 11, were killed on June 27, 1978. Their deaths haunted him for years.

When Billing set out 30 years later to make a film about his lost brothers, his goal was to investigate the unanswered questions about their sudden and mysterious deaths – why did the seemingly happy well-adjusted boys run away from home that day? Where were they going? Why were they on the train tracks?

Lost Sparrow,” Billing’s powerful and personal film, succeeds in unraveling the mystery surrounding Bobby and Tyler, but in doing so it unveils a family secret that led directly to the boys’ tragic deaths.

“If I had known from the beginning what it would require and what I was getting myself into I wouldn’t have done it. It was certainly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took two years of my life to make the film and there were certainly times along the way where I felt overwhelmed by the content as various revelations came to light through my investigation.

“But now having finished the film – and part of what happened kind of revealed itself and occurred by virtue of the fact that I was making the film – now, looking back, I’m glad I made it.”

“Lost Sparrow” premieres on the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Independent Lens on Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 10 p.m. Local broadcast times are available on the PBS website.

“Chris Billing has made a compelling and occasionally chilling documentary that unearths the secrets of one family, while also looking at the issue of interracial adoption,” said Lois Vossen, series producer. “What makes the film all the more effective is that the family in question is his own, and he shares this very difficult, personal story without bias.”

The film begins in a cemetery in Manheim, N.Y., where Bobby and Tyler were buried after their untimely deaths, and ends with their reburial in Crow land on the Stands Over Bull Family Cemetery in Pryor, Mont.

“We as Crows don’t believe in Crow Indians buried somewhere else,” the boys’ biological father says in a voice over as the graves in New York are dug up. “The Crow believe that their spirits never rest, they just go around when that happens until you get their bodies back and bury them at Crow.”

The boys’ repatriation to their ancestral land was welcomed by their adoptive mother.

“They live in my heart; they don’t live in a piece of land in Mannheim, N.Y.”

Billings, who narrates the film, drives a truck with his brothers’ coffins across the country to return the boys’ remains to their ancestral Crow land.

“As I drive, I can’t help thinking about the hard road that led them from a Crow reservation in Montana to train tracks and a cemetery in upstate New York,” he says in the film.

The white, Baptist Billing family adopted Bobby and Tyler, and their two sisters Lana and Janelle, in 1971. The family already had four biological children and two other adopted Indian children. The four Crow siblings had been taken from their Crow home in Montana, which was troubled by alcoholism and domestic violence, and relocated across the country to New York state where the Billing family lived in a mansion.

“Lost sparrow” is the Crow term for children taken from the reservation. In that era before the passage of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, the children’s whereabouts were not revealed to their biological parents or the tribe.

The film has been screened by various organizations in Indian country, including the National Indian Child Welfare Association, and will be widely available on DVD soon, Billing said.

“I’m hoping a lot of people will use it for a variety of reasons, certainly a lot of organizations like, Darkness to Light, and Stop the Silence have been using the film already. I know a lot of DVDs are circulating in Indian country and I hope that will continue.”

The idea is not to oppose the adoption of Indian children by white families, which the Indian Child Welfare Act has addressed, but rather to assure “that what happened in my family would not happen again,” Billing said.

“Lost Sparrow” artfully weaves home movies, family photographs, newspaper articles, adoption records, police reports, and interviews with family members and key people involved in Bobby and Tyler’s lives into a beautiful and riveting film in terms of its cinematography, music, pace and tone.

But the truth that Bobby and Tyler uncovered about their adoptive father and the ruin it brought to their sister Lana reveals sorrowful family drama.

If there is redemption in this film it is brought home by Lana – whose life has been marked by alcoholism, poverty and estrangement from the family for decades – in an extraordinary scene of family reconciliation toward the end of the film.

“As far as I’m concerned, if the film was good for Lana, then it was worthwhile and it appears to be. She has said as much, that she was glad she participated and glad that we had that meeting with my father. I think a big part of that was all those years no one had really listened or been interested in her side of the story,” Billing said.

“As I was conducting that interview, I was amazed at how well-spoken she was, how willing she was, even her demeanor, and her lack of anger or bitterness as she talked about all those events with a total lack of any kind of animosity.”

But, ultimately, the film hasn’t brought the entire family together, Billing said.

“Certainly, it’s brought my sister and I closer together and it’s certainly been cathartic for me to answer a lot of questions that were lingering over three decades about what happened to my two brothers. But Lana still lives in a difficult situation in North Carolina and most of my family is in New Jersey and there hasn’t been that much of a great rapprochement. The family is still a little bit divided that way.”