Photo Information

Local Marines fold flags for Lance Cpl. Joe Jackson’s family during his funeral May 4 at Tahoma Cemetery. Jackson was killed April 24 by an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan. (Official Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jad Sleiman)

Photo by Cpl. Jad Sleiman

The Warrior’s Song: Community welcomes, remembers Native American Marine

12 May 2011 | Cpl. Jad Sleiman

Past sprawling orchards, rusting automobiles and tangles of graffiti is the Yakama Nation Native American community of White Swan. It was here that Lance Cpl. Joe Jackson, surrounded by drugs, gangs and poverty, beat the odds.

  At the end of a gravel road, a stone’s throw from White Swan High School is the peach two-story house where Jackson grew into adulthood. He was placed there at the age of 12 after the state deemed his mother unfit to raise him safely. A week after Easter Sunday every oak in the front yard wears a yellow ribbon and an American flag flies at half-mast on the pole Jackson helped his foster-father erect.

  The next day, Jackson’s remains will arrive at the Yakima Air Terminal as veteran bikers of the Patriot Guard Riders, a cadre of first responders and a detail of local 4th Tank Battalion Marines stand by on the tarmac in his honor. The 22-year-old was killed by an improvised explosive device blast in south-central Afghanistan while patrolling with his fellow 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment Marines, April 24.

  Shawn Marceau, who over the years became “dad” to Jackson, walks along the barbed-wire fence that separated his foster son from everything that could have ruined him. The Yakama Nation Indian Reservation, surrounded by the picturesque mountains and fields of the Yakima Valley, can be a tough place to grow up.

  “A reservation is no different from South Central, from the Bronx, you know, any ghetto or housing project in the world,” said Marceau, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe. “And yet to come out of that on top, it is profound the way this young man grew up and became a Marine.”

  Marceau describes the small patch of land that stretches from the scarred wooden posts he and his foster-son used to throw knives at to the edge of the gravel drive-way as an “oasis in a combat zone.”

  “Here was safe, right here. Joe knew he could come here,” he said at the edge of his property. “You look over the fence and you see the signs of danger that walk up and down these roads all the time.”

  Gang graffiti strings its way around the derelict construction crumbling across from the Marceau home. A stranger once leapt out at Marceau from behind it. The former Marine, like many in an area where restaurateurs must post signs reminding patrons not to carry their firearms into bar areas, routinely carries a concealed weapon. His attacker fled followed by police sirens.

  A saying passed around within Native American circles: “We’re taught to survive, not succeed.” It was a saying Marceau taught his son to reject. The strength that comes from native identity was the key to making sure his son grew up right, he explained. A preteen Jackson, however, entered his foster home unsure of who he was.

  “He was raw, he was trying to be, for lack of better words, a gangsta, trying to be a thug," recalled Marceau. “I just told him, ‘It’s OK to be Indian.’”

  Over the years Jackson found his place not in a gang, but in a tribe. He won a guitar during a trip to Las Vegas, sanded off the varnish and wood burned elk and eagles onto the body. Later, after Marceau brought back tourist-quality warrior figurines from the Grand Canyon, a young Jackson set about outdoing them using clay, leather, wood and feathers. Native painting, dance and flute followed as creative expression became the Gila River Indian’s most visible connection to tribal culture.

  It was that same culture that so valued military service.

  “Our ancestors are all warriors. They fought for their land, for their people,” explained Marine veteran Patrick Luke, a member of the Yakama Warriors Association who served in Beirut. “They were brought up to do what’s right; this is a teaching that’s passed on when they are small.”

  When those traditions meet, the warrior culture and the importance of doing what’s right, the end result is often military service. In fact, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other races. The past is the past they say, and America is their land. Her wars are theirs.

  Luke was among the drummers at Jackson’s Yakama Seven Drums funeral service -- a 36-hour marathon of singing, music, dance and remembrance held in the gym of the high school Jackson graduated from. As mourners came and went at all hours of the day and night, two Marines in crisp dress blues stood guard over Jackson’s casket at parade rest in two-hour shifts.

  Sgt. Joseph Stordahl met Jackson in 2009 as his recruiter. He remembers a young man who wasn’t afraid to be different and wanted to be a grunt like his foster father.

   “When I first went to his house he was wearing this gi karate outfit with a black belt and going to town on a bass guitar,” he said, after a shift standing guard over Jackson’s remains. “Most Marines you meet, you know of their family, but I actually knew his family. I had to be here.”  

  The ceremony revolved around sets of prayer songs meant to “light” the way for Jackson, said one mourner. As the drummers and singers played and danced in the White Swan High School gym, drummers and singers played and danced along “on the other side,” he explained. Such ceremonies have been a part of native life since before written history. The tribe rarely allows outsiders to attend, but readily welcomed the Marines. 

  The final song in the first set has various names depending on which tribe sings it, but most know it as the “Warrior’s Song.”

  “When our warriors went off into battle they would go on their own horses,” said James Kiona, a Marine veteran and member of the YWA. “The people would see that after the battle some horses would come back without their riders.”

  A Catholic Rosary service capped off the tribal ceremonies before Jackson’s remains were taken into Yakima for military honors and burial, May 4. A convoy of police, Patriot Guard Riders and mourners stretched more than a mile along the 45-minute drive from the reservation to Tahoma Cemetery.

  Staff Sgt. Anthony Boswell, Jackson’s command escort from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, has lost five Marines in his career, but never had the opportunity to return one home. He met Jackson’s remains at Dover Air Field, Del., the waypoint for all servicemembers killed in action, before accompanying him across the country and into Yakima on a small charter plane.

 “I never got to see the pride and the understanding of a community pushing through together,” said Boswell after riding across town in Jackson’s hearse while a small army of mourners followed. “Watching the police blaze up and down the highway trying to make sure everybody was stopped, everybody was pulled off to the side of the road. There was no traffic allowed moving around us. It was awesome. It was truly awesome to see the respect that was being paid to this Marine.”

  Boswell had seen Jackson in passing around the battalion, but only got to know him through the memories of his friends and family. Lance Cpl. Isaac Green, another one of the volunteers who guarded Jackson’s remains, was his bunk mate in boot camp.

  “He just always would smile. It didn’t matter, even when the drill instructors were in his face,” recalled the Company B, 4th Tank Bn. tank crew man and Yakima native. “Most of our drill instructors couldn’t even keep a straight face around him. They had to walk away.”

  Like most recruits, Green and Jackson heard the common drill instructor speech about the solemn fact that some in their platoon would deploy and die overseas. He never once thought Jackson would be the one.

 “It’s a small world. It’s a small Marine Corps,” he said.

  A chaplain’s invocation kicked off Jackson’s military burial ceremony, led by the Marines of Yakima’s 4th Tanks, before the playing of taps and a 21-gun salute ended it. After flags were folded and handed to Jackson’s family, tribal leaders took over to continue the burial in line with Native tradition.

  According to the Washaat faith, all life comes from and eventually returns to Mother Earth. A tribal leader called on family and fellow warriors to line up before Jackson’s open grave. At this ceremony, the Marines were considered both.

  The prayer songs began again as a single bell rang on and on to a gentle rhythm. Mourners pounded their hands along with the ringing, along with the beating heart of the Mother.  Yakama warriors – Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps veterans – were at the head of the line followed by over a dozen Marines in dress blues.

  Each Marine clutched a sacred eagle feather in one hand and a handful of dirt in the other. The Yakama warriors threw their dirt on the casket before raising one hand to wave and turned away. It was a wave goodbye, they said, until they too arrive on the other side. The Marines delivered their feathers, followed by their dirt. Each one in turn delivered a slow, deliberate salute, rendered without expectation of return.        

  Back at the Marceau home Jackson’s foster father keeps a cabinet full of his foster son’s artwork. His voice breaks, heavy with grief, as he talks about the way Jackson gave away so much of it ahead of what would be his first and only deployment as if he knew he wasn’t coming back.

  Half-foot-tall hoop dancers and warriors in various states of repair stand reminiscent of an American culture older than the United States. To Marceau, they’re decaying reminders of a son strong in his heritage and dedication to country.

  “He left me something to fix,” said Marceau as he held up a Blackfeet warrior missing the lower half of his leg. “He served everyone. Now, I can serve him.”