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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

The Canadian country music scene was shocked by the sudden death of Cree singer/songwriter Shane Yellowbird, whose childhood dreams of being a rodeo cowboy turned to performing when he began singing to help his stutter. He was 42.

An outpouring of praise for Yellowbird came from country music performers, fans and others across Canada. Yellowbird died April 25.

“It’s a sad day in the Canadian country music world as we’ve learned that Cree country singer Shane Yellowbird has passed away at the age of 42,” Pure Country 93 radio station in London, Ontario, posted to Instagram.

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Blues singer Crystal Shawanda, one of Canada’s top Indigenous artists who came on the music scene soon after Yellowbird’s debut in 2007, posted a photo of herself and Yellowbird on Instagram.

“I’ve been in shock since I heard the heartbreaking news of the passing of country music artist Shane Yellowbird,” she posted. “He called me Lil Sis and I called him Bro, we were just 2 Rez kids that decided to go for it … We were lucky to be there and we knew it.”

Singer Jade Turner, who is from the Misipawisitik Cree Nation in Northern Manitoba and who released her third full album in February, said she looked to Yellowbird as an inspiration.

“I remember the very first time that I seen him – it was on CMT,” Turner told Indian Country Today from her home in Selkirk, Manitoba, referring to Country Music Television. “I was at my mom's place … I looked over and I was like, what the heck? I called to my mom, ‘I'm pretty sure this guy is Indigenous.’”

Turner said Yellowbird’s success broke a path for others to follow.

“To see somebody that was from a rez in Canada and that you could actually relate to, you know. I come from the exact same kind of situation that this person comes from and they were able to deal with it,” she said. “And that's really important for me, and for anybody who's out there that just wants to allow themselves to dream that big.”

The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers posted a memorial to Yellowbird on its website.

“In 2009, he became one of only three Indigenous artists to ever perform at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville,” according to the post, “where he was overjoyed to meet and chat with his hero and fellow stutterer, country superstar Mel Tillis.”

Yellowbird received a number of accolades during his career. He released his debut album, “Life is Calling My Name,” in 2007 to much success and acclaim, with the single, “Pickup Truck,” from the album a top five hit on the Canadian country singles chart.

Later that year he received the Rising Star of the year award at the Canadian Country Music Awards. He went on to win two Native American Music Awards, for best country recording in 2011 for the U.S. release of “Life is Calling My Name,” and in 2012 for his release, “It’s About Time.”

Yellowbird was from the Maswacis Cree Nation about 70 miles south of Edmonton, Alberta. He grew up in a rodeo family and dreamed of riding for championship buckles.

He had a stutter, however, and one of the therapies he used was singing. He soon found out that not only could he sing without stuttering but he had a sweet, country-tinged tenor voice.

When he hit the stage, the spurs weren’t for show – he was a true Indian Cowboy.

Yellowbird also was known to have epilepsy and had talked publicly about the condition. The British Columbia Epilepsy Society posted on its official Twitter account about his death.

“All of us at the BC Epilepsy Society send our thoughts to his family, friends, loved ones, and fans who are all coping with this immense loss,” official tweeted.

Candlelight vigils for Yellowbird were held at the Alberta legislative grounds on April 27-28 and featured prayers, songs, stories, dancers and other performers.

In her Instagram post, Shawanda summed up the loss.

“He was a trailblazer and no male Indigenous country music artist has yet to do what he did, which shows the magnitude of what he accomplished,” she said. “Too young, too soon. Sending prayers for his journey home, and for all his family, friends and fans. See you later Bro.”

The cause of death remains unknown. 

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