Cedrick Wilkinson stood at the entrance to the Lone Star Veterans Arena watching the hundreds of people gathered to watch the parade of dancers for the grand entrance at this year’s United Tribes Technical College International Pow Wow in September.
Wilkinson, 53, wore his 30-year-old Marine Corps blues uniform. A few yards to his left was his brother, Douglas, also a Marine veteran. In between, at attention, were their daughters, the cape. Serene Wilkinson and Lance Cpl. Emmanuelle Wilkinson.
The people who attended the powwow in Bismarck weren’t there just to listen to the talented singers or to watch the colorful display of the dancers’ feathers, beaded garments and athleticism. They were also there to honor and celebrate the return of the two young Marines with a welcoming ceremony.
The Wilkinson girls had returned from Camp Pendelton, California, to attend a family funeral. As the steady rhythm of a buffalo skin drum thundered under the chorus of singers, a crowd of Native American veterans escorted the four Marines. The group marched in time to the music and were greeted by people in the audience standing up to shake hands and say “welcome home”.
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A box was placed in the center of the arena for people to deposit money to help the two active duty Marines pay for their trip back to the military base where they are stationed. For them, the ceremony was moving.
“You don’t realize how many people really miss and appreciate you until you get home and see it for yourself,” Serene Wilkinson said. “It’s heartwarming. We both thought it was great.
It was a show of thanks and gratitude similar to that shown on Veterans Day, the federal holiday being celebrated on Friday. It marks the anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I in 1918.
The Wilkinsons recognize the legacy and sacrifice of others who serve.
“I’m grateful for everyone who came before me, those who are here now to protect this country and those who are about to leave,” said Cedrick Wilkinson.
His daughter’s point of view is much the same.
“I admire those who have been on the journey before I decided to join, because they’ve obviously been through a lot more than I have been,” she said. “It’s kind of a peacetime for us, and when my aunts and uncles were there and my dad and my grandparents were there, they had a harder time because it wasn’t peacetime – they’ve actually been through fights, so I’m giving them props to be in those times that were way tougher than I have right now.
A family tradition
For Cedrick Wilkinson, who leads the welding program at UTTC, enlisting in the Marines was about family tradition and honoring his Native American heritage.
He was raised on the family ranch at the Fort Berthold Reservation. He grew up looking up to his aunt Gloria Wilkinson and uncle Howard Wilkinson, who both served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. Cedrick Wilkinson served in the Marines from 1989-1993 and is a veteran of Operation Desert Shield-Desert Storm and a deployment to Somalia.
There are 12 members of Wilkinson’s immediate family who served or are serving in the Marines. With the honor and tradition of serving also came tragedy. Wilkinson’s older brother William suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in the Marines in the 1980s as a sniper and killed himself in 2003.
Wilkinson wore his blues duty uniform during the welcome home ceremony to honor his brother and friend, Purple Heart recipient AJ Marino.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives are the highest per capita population serving in the military. According to the Department of Defense, there were 22,569 Native American and Alaska Native service men and women enlisted at the height of the War on Terror, with 1,297 officers on active duty.
“So many of the family members were in branches of military service,” Wilkinson said. “I grew up knowing that most of my uncles were in the army or the navy; my family, my extended family, everyone was in the service that I remember. I just wanted to be part of it. It’s actually just tradition. You must go out and protect your family, your country, your village.
Her daughter enlisted after seeing members of her immediate and extended family do the same, and also because of the tuition offered by the military.
“It was those little things that made me do it. The tradition with the last name and not only that, but being a role model for my siblings and my cousins and anyone else in my community who may be afraid to take those first steps,” she said. “If I can do it, they can do it too.
Cedrick Wilkinson’s son, Pressley, is a senior at Shiloh Christian School in Bismarck and is in the Marines Deferred Entry Program. He will participate in a training camp after graduation. Big sister Serene is here to help.
“I’ve given him advice here and there and when he asks to see if he’ll accept it,” she said.
Serene Wilkinson said being a Native American woman in the military boosts her pride in her culture. When she meets people at Camp Pendelton, she says, they are surprised that she is Native American.
“Now I can give them a little piece of our culture and tell them about what we do and our way of life,” she said.
Cedrick Wilkinson said joining the Marines was the best thing for him at this time in his life.
“(It) gave me discipline, character, compassion for others – no matter what race you belong to,” he said.