Pioneering Cree country artist Shane Yellowbird dies at 42

Cree country singer and songwriter Shane Yellowbird died suddenly on Monday, family members confirmed to CBC News.

The 42-year-old from Maskwacis, about 100 kilometers south of Edmonton, became an award-winning artist after a stuttering problem drove him to music.

Close friends say he had a history of health problems, including epilepsy.

“Several years ago he started sharing that he wasn’t doing as many shows because he was suffering from seizures,” Yellowbird friend and fellow musician Crystal Shawanda told CBC News.

“He made a public statement about it. He was starting to share that and be more open about it with people.”

Hugs and tributes have been pouring in on social media since news of Yellowbird’s death became public Tuesday morning.

Shawanda said she was shocked when she heard the news.

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “That kind of comes out of nowhere.”

In 2007, Yellowbird received the Rising Star Award at the Canadian Country Music Awards, as well as three awards given that same year at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

His song, Pickup, became her first top-five song on the Canadian Country Singles Chart in the summer of 2007.

“What he has achieved is huge,” Shawanda said. “No Indigenous male country music artist has done what he’s done yet. It shows the magnitude of what he’s achieved. He was the first to walk through that door.”

She believes Yellowbird will continue to inspire other aspiring Indigenous male artists.

“He was a pioneer. He opened doors,” Shawanda said.

“He made the dreams we dreamed of a little more possible.”

According to a 2009 profile of Yellowbird published by the First Nations Drum newspaper, Yellowbird wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a rodeo cowboy. But his career path changed following treatment for a severe stuttering problem he had as a child.

“He started seeing a speech therapist who suggested he sing his phrases to help him speak clearly,” the article said. “The technique proved effective and also instilled a budding love of music in Yellowbird.”

Yellowbird’s family gathers in Maskwacis on Tuesday afternoon to arrange the funeral. A cause of death has not been released.