Investigating Indian Brothers' Fate In 'Lost Sparrow'

Two Crow Indian brothers had run away from the white Baptist family that adopted them out of a troubled home on the Crow reservation in Montana. Over seven years in their adoptive home, they had discovered a dark secret and were headed back to the reservation when they were killed. Host Michel Martin talks with filmmaker Chris Billing about his documentary Lost Sparrow, which details his quest to find out what happened to his adoptive brothers and to confront a painful family history.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In just a few minutes, Maya Angelou joins us to tell us why she decided now is the time to donate much of her literary treasure trove to Harlem Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. That conversation is - just a few minutes.

But first, we want to tell you about a new film that explores a subject that many have grappled with: family secrets. To the outside world, the Billings(ph) family was a picture-perfect example of how a lot of love and a little sacrifice could overcome the boundaries of race and poverty. The family included five white children - one of them adopted - and five adopted Native American ones, including four children adopted from the same Crow Indian family. But then two of the Crow Indian boys ran away, and were killed in a tragic accident.

Thirty years later, the filmmaker Chris Billing tried to find out the truth about why they ran away. And that led him to a shocking discovery. He tells the story in a new film, "Lost Sparrow." It premieres tonight as part of the PBS series "Independent Lens." And Chris Billing joins us now to tell us more about it. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. CHRIS BILLING (Filmmaker, "Lost Sparrow"): It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: What is a lost sparrow?

Mr. BILLING: It's the Crow Indian term - and my four siblings were adopted from the Crow tribe just out of Billings, Montana. And it's a Crow Indian term for children who are taken away from the reservation out of the tribe, as happened with my siblings. We adopted them all the way from Montana to the state of New Jersey.

MARTIN: And the film, I have to say, starts in a very tough place. In 1978, your brothers Bobby and Tyler tragically died in a train accident. They were only 11 and 13 years old. And you were - what, 16 at the time?

Mr. BILLING: I was 16 at the time, correct.

MARTIN: And I just want to ask you to think back to that day. Do you remember the day? Do you remember what you were told about this?

Mr. BILLING: It was the first day of the summer vacation in the end of June, in 1978. They'd run away from home the day before. And we were a very prominent family in this small town in upstate New York - at that time, where we lived. So the whole town turned out to look for them, to no avail. And then early the next morning, there was kind of word that something had happened down at the railroad tracks. And eventually, the police came up and notified my family of what had happened.

And sort of the official version was that they had fallen asleep on the train tracks, and the train came around the corner and hit them. And that's sort of what has stood all these years as an explanation for what happened. But that never was quite satisfying to me. And the image of them as my brothers and my friends from childhood, and what had happened to them, had haunted me all these years. And I always wanted to go back and discover and investigate what the truth was. And that really is what led me to start filming the film "Lost Sparrow."

MARTIN: Until that point, did you think your family was what they looked like? As you mentioned - that you were a very prominent family; you lived in an actual mansion. But what made you think something wasn't right with what you had been told?

Mr. BILLING: A lot of it had to do - I had a conversation with one of my sisters, Janelle, one of my adopted Crow Indian sisters, and she kind of revealed to me some of the back story of what she knew about why they had run away from home, that involved some of these family secrets that you referred to. So that's what spurred me to actually start filming, get out the cameras and investigating.

MARTIN: And one of the people you talked to - in fact, you talked to both parents and some of your siblings. And this is the very chilling interview that you had with your mother.

(Soundbite of film, "Lost Sparrow")

Ms. DEE BILLING: I think Dad was pretty careful, because not only myself lived there, but there was a house full of kids - teens, house full of kids. And I trusted Stu. I never dreamed that anything like that was going on. And when Lana was about 8 or 9 years old, I just had an uneasy feeling. And I think I had made several attempts. But this one time, I snuck upstairs. And the door was closed to the main bathroom, but I could see through the keyhole what I didn't want to see.

MARTIN: I'm struggling with how to talk about this in a way that respects what you're trying to accomplish with the film, but also lets people understand. This is a very serious breach of trust going on in that family - your family. Maybe you could describe it as much as you would care to.

Mr. BILLING: I really felt torn. On the one hand, I'm a journalist; I want just the facts. On the other hand, wait, this is my father and mother that we're talking about, and my siblings that we're talking about.

MARTIN: But for purposes of our discussion, there was abuse, particularly - of any person - but a young child in particular. And this was the trigger, apparently. Your brothers were trying to get help for their sister, and that's why they ran away. You confronted your father. What did he say?

Mr. BILLING: I did, in fact, ask my father of - what had happened, whether he knew that his activities had led to the disappearance and ultimately, the deaths of my two brothers.

MARTIN: Did he know that you knew? Did he know that other people within the family knew at that point. Or was your confronting him the first time that he became aware?

Mr. BILLING: It had been known within the family for a number of years by then that something had happened. But no one had really gone out and started asking for specifics, or really - kind of confronting my father about, you know, how could you do this?

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, I'm Michel Martin, and youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Im speaking with filmmaker Chris Billing. His new documentary, "Lost Sparrow," is the story of Chris family, and a deep secret that he uncovered within the family, that he explored within the family. The film also addresses the question of cross-racial adoption because the family included, you know, five white children and five Native American children, four of them from the same Crow Indian family.

You know, to that point, the film raises tough questions about whether these children would have been better off - should they have been in this family to begin with? And - but you also make the case that these children didnt just happen to be in this family by accident, that there were some serious things that they were taken from. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

Mr. BILLING: Yeah, they were adopted out of a difficult situation. There was alcoholism and even spousal abuse within the family that they were adopted from on the Crow Reservation. And they had lived in foster care for a number of years. But basically, the issue was that the Montana Department of Social Services wanted to keep the four children together. And to my understanding, my family was the only one that said, we'll take all four of them.

MARTIN: I am curious about a couple things. One is that, were any of the siblings angry that you aired this dirty laundry?

Mr. BILLING: Three of my siblings declined to be involved, and I think there was sort of a question of, why are you doing this?

MARTIN: And what's the answer?

Mr. BILLING: I am a filmmaker, so its what I do. When I started this investigation, I really didnt know where it was all going to lead. I think you can tell as the way the film plays out - is, I was discovering things along the way that I didnt realize or didnt know or didnt expect. So once I got to a certain point, then I felt like it was beyond the point no return. But if I had known what I was getting myself into from the beginning, I dont think I would have done it. But that said, I think its an important film, and Im glad I finished it. And I think it can help people, and play a role, by revealing some of these things.

MARTIN: So whats the lesson? How would you prevent this from happening to somebody else? Thats the question Im sort of haunted by.

Mr. BILLING: Well, one thing could be that potential perpetrators who see the film - it doesnt end, you know, in these quiet moments. It doesnt remain the little secret. Just that knowledge, in and of itself, hopefully could may prevent other occurrences of this sort of thing happening.

MARTIN: So the truth will come out eventually?

Mr. BILLING: It does.

MARTIN: Chris Billing is a filmmaker. His new documentary is called "Lost Sparrow." It premieres tonight as part of the PBS "Independent Lens" series. Youll want to check your local listings for times. Chris joined us from our studios in Washington, D.C.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BILLING: Been great to be here.

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