'Trailblazer' Cree country artist Shane Yellowbird dead at 42

Friends say the award-winning singer-songerwriter from Maskwacis, Alta., is an inspiration to aspiring Indigenous country artists. 

Friends call singer-songerwriter an inspiration to aspiring Indigenous country artists

Shane Yellowbird of Alberta, who won the rising star prize at the Canadian Country Music Awards in 2007, died on Monday. (Troy Fleece/The Canadian Press)

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

The 42-year-old from Maskwacis, about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, became an award-winning artist after a stuttering condition led him into music. 

A statement from family members said Yellowbird was residing in Calgary when he died.

"Our brother was a talented artist who loved his children, music and sports," it reads. "We are all deeply struck by the tragedy and ask for the respect and privacy of this time to mourn the loss of our loved one."

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

"Several years ago he started to share that he wasn't doing as many shows because he was suffering from seizures," Yellowbird's 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."

Accolades and tributes have been pouring in on social media since word of Yellowbird's death became public on Tuesday morning. 

Remembering Shane Yellowbird

4 months ago
Duration 1:29
Shane Yellowbird, a Cree country singer and songwriter from Maskwacis, Alta. died unexpectedly on Monday. He’s being remembered as a talented artist and trailblazer who deeply loved his children, music, and sports.

Shawanda said she was shocked when she heard the news. 

"I just can't quite believe it," she said. "This kind of came out of nowhere."

In 2007, Yellowbird received the rising star award at the Canadian Country Music Awards, along with three awards handed out the same year at the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. 

His song, Pickup Truck, became his first top five song on the Canadian Country singles chart in the summer of 2007. 

"What he accomplished is huge," Shawanda said. "No male Indigenous country music artist has yet to do what he has done. That kind of shows the magnitude of what he accomplished. He was the first one to get through that door."

She thinks Yellowbird will continue to serve as an inspiration to other aspiring male Indigenous country artists. 

"He was a trailblazer. He opened doors," Shawanda said. 

"He made the dreams that we dreamed a little bit more possible."

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

"He began seeing a speech therapist who suggested that he sing his sentences to help him speak clearly," the article states. "The technique proved successful and also instilled a budding love of music in Yellowbird." 

Funeral services will be held in Maskwacis this Friday. A cause of death has not been released.

With files from Samantha Schwientek and Janice Johnston