Nothing seems simple growing up on an Indian reservation as Jerry Tuckwin's early life experiences will show.
His parents, Louis and Elizabeth Tuckwin lived on the reservation for many years. They raised ten children, including Jerry who was born February 14, 1942 on a cold, windy, snowy night. The family eventually moved to nearby Mayetta, but eight months later a tragedy changed the Tuckwin family's life's forever.
Out of this adversity, the remaining family did everything they could to stay together and make it as a family. For instance, Jerry's older brothers Paul and Mitch, worked for local farmers, his brother Brub went to high school in Delia, two older sisters went to Marty Indian School in South Dakota where Jerry would soon follow. They eventually moved in with Mage and Jane Puckee.
One day his sister Moke and Floyd “Pink” Patterson drove him to Marty Indian School. They stopped and had a chicken dinner, Jerry recalled, and he thought it was all fun. After arriving in South Dakota, Pink Patterson gave him a silver dollar, and he went to a movie at the school. After the movie was over, both of his relatives were gone. He again was devastated. A lonely, empty feeling came over seven-year old Jerry, but he had no choice but to adjust to the new environment. Sometimes adjustment meant taking his fair share of corporal punishment, a typical experience for an Indian at a boarding school.
That Christmas, his brother Mitch, Mage and Jane Puckee came to visit him. What they saw disturbed them. Jerry was in a raggedy condition. Mitch said to the school officials, "We sent him a winter coat and where is it?" They answered that they didn't want one kid to have more than another. Mitch angrily told them that it was wrong to treat kids like animals and promptly loaded Jerry up in their vehicle and took him home. Jerry recalled staying at a hotel in Yankton, South Dakota on the way home where he was able to clean up.
Jerry remembers the positive influence Mage Puckee had on his life. Mage was a teacher at one of the one-room school houses on the reservation and would make Jerry read, Newsweek and, tell him what he remembered from his reading. Jerry said at the age of nine he had made up his mind that he would follow in the teaching steps of this man. Later this was reinforced by another teacher, Tony Coffin. Another factor in his teaching ambition was watching how hard his brothers had to work and how their hands were split and bruised. Jerry decided there was something else out there, which for him was teaching.
Both Mage and Jane Puckee told Jerry how important it was to put his mind, heart and intelligence into everything he did and only then would it be possible to accomplish something in his life. They implored him to get an education because with an education he had choices without it he would only be able to settle for far less.They not only taught him the value of learning and the possibilities of an education, but instilled the importance of religion in his life. His Aunt Jane told him over and over that if he had faith and spirituality in his life he would have everything. She also stressed to him how important it was to respect all religions. Jerry remembered those words many times in future days and years.
After going to school locally, Jerry went to Haskell, when it was a high school at age 14. It was hard for Jerry, then because he didn't weigh very much, which, led to other students picking on him that caused confrontations. Despite this, he made straight A's, and, settled into a fairly consistent pattern with school for nine months and going home in the summer to work for local farmers. He graduated from Haskell.
From there, Jerry went to the University of Wichita (called Wichita State today) on a track scholarship. His room, board and books were paid for by scholarship, but he had to pay for his meals. Back then, Jerry didn't have financial assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Tribe, but because of his summer earnings, he was able to eat. His first year in college was one of personal turmoil. Jerry thought people were prejudiced toward him, but after a time he realized it wasn't true. Once again, he came to terms with those difficult feelings and adjusted as so many times in the past. Jerry said college was a great learning experience. He graduated in 1964. A man named Tommy Ward from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Anadarko, Oklahoma sent him $100 in his last year, which helped him buy his cap and gown. This was the only assistance he received during his college days. He had made it on his own.
Jerry said there were 28 relatives who came to his graduation. Jerry said one person who didn't make it was Bud Onzawah. Jerry had fond memories of Bud. When he was a young boy, Bud would bring milk, eggs and a loaf of bread to his house and Jerry really wanted him at this graduation that year because of this positive experience from his youth.
For a time, he taught at Desoto Public Schools and Haskell Institute where he coached men's basketball. Jerry enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1966. He was stationed at San Antonio, Texas; Champaign, Illinois; Tucson, Arizona and went to Vietnam in 1968. Jerry also married the former Terry Maupin during the early part of his military career. She proved to be an anchor during hard times for him then and now.
While in Vietnam, he served in a reconnaissance unit and was amazed at the capabilities of the pilots and their planes when they went out on patrol. On these trips, the pilots were able to take pictures of enemy movements and bases. The technology was so advanced that they could take a picture of dog tag on a soldier from afar.
Jerry said one day at Bien Hoa Air Base the white soldiers hollered at him "Hey Chief Tuckwin there's a Potawatomi chief here to see you," and Curtis Masquat, Jr. walked up. They got to spend an afternoon together visiting. Curtis Paul was in the U.S. Army and this visit gave him time to clean up and go to the mess hall where he wanted to drink milk. He had read that Jerry was there from a Haskell paper. Soon after, Curtis left to go back to his unit, but for a brief time he was able to visit with a fellow Potawatomi in a far off land. But not all times were so positive. One night around 2 a.m. a rocket attack hit their base. The initial attack and its force pinned Jerry up against a wall, and he could hear the other men crying and screaming. There was fire, and it seemed like his life flashed before him. Jerry was to see his brothers and sisters again, but he made up his mind that he wasn't going to die in that fire like his family had many years before. He prayed to God to show him the way and was able to get to a bunker 50 yards away. He left the military in July of 1970.
Jerry went back to Haskell in August of 1970 and stayed there for 32 years. He enjoyed coaching, assisting with the development of students and athletes and seeing them mature physically, socially and intellectually. It was rewarding to be around Indian people who could laugh even in the most troubling times. He said they had a more relaxed approach to life and appreciated the little things of life.
There were disappointments, too. He saw many with so much talent and potential but for some reason or another didn't realize it. Maybe some lacked desire, or maybe there were extenuating circumstances and some had to go home and work and to support their families. It bothered him to see such talent go to waste.
During his long teaching and coaching careers, Jerry received many awards, but he saw himself as a little person who didn't need headlines and only wanted to help others find a better way. His advice to young people over the years was to work hard enough to achieve something and then work harder. If something fails, go back to the basics, because people can do more if they try harder.
His lessons didn't stop with students at Haskell he had to learn some from within. In the summer of 2005 Jerry lost an invaluable asset to his life. Jane Puckee died that summer. She was a woman who was fluent in the Potawatomi language (her Indian name was "Ah no mo kweh" - a name that once belonged to her grandmother). Despite her 96 years, she stayed extremely alert and could recall Indian names and stories from long ago. It was a traumatic time again for Jerry. This woman was a stabilizing force in his life, and now she was gone.
A week later, it was a hot 90 degree day, but Jerry still played nine holes of golf and came home tired and not feeling right. In times such as these events happen fast, and before he knew it he fell to the floor. His wife Terry called 911 and administered CPR until the ambulance got there four minutes later. They pronounced him dead at one point, but experts helped to jolt him back into this world. Jerry was semi-conscious for three days. When he awoke, the recovery process was hard. Before his heart attack, Jerry did everything on his own. Now, he had to depend on his wife, Terry, for help in doing even the simple things in life. It was a time of total dependence - something Jerry had never experienced before. It was a time to overcome adversity again.
He often wondered why God had spared his life and is still trying to figure that out. Jerry thought that it was meant for him to spend more time with his wife, his children Shannon and John and his four grandchildren. As so many times in his life, Jerry once again depended on his faith and a belief in God and prayer has worked in his recovery process. Jerry Tuckwin deserves more time to contribute to the lives of Indian people. His life serves as an example of great triumph and grace in times of great adversity.