EDITOR’S NOTE: On December 17, 2015, Terrance Jackson, 24, was convicted of second-degree murder for the stabbing death of Gerald Smith, 22. The author witnessed that violent confrontation between two men he never knew, and testified at Jackson’s trial. He speaks now not of Smith’s life, but of his final, extraordinary act of courage, noting that “in the face of certain death, the manner of your death can be your life’s last and defining choice.”
On March 28, 2014 at 3:00 p.m. I witnessed the murder of unarmed Gerald Allan Smith, 22, by Terrance C. Jackson, 24, on the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara reservation near New Town, North Dakota. What struck me about it was the senselessness of the act and the sickening beauty of Smith’s death. The world will not mourn Smith’s passing, will not take note of just another young AmerIndian’s death on a reservation in the center of the planet’s most immensely profitable oil field. Smith’s passing is only a cold statistic, and that is the truth. And yet, to his family and friends his death was life-shattering, and certainly for his little boy, both the center of each other’s world.
I did not know Smith. Whether he was a credit to society or a blot, I cannot say, and certainly it is not my place to judge. But I will say this in the way of a kind of eulogy, after testifying at his killer’s trial in Bismarck, and in moving on: I know well what cowardice and bravery in the face of certain death look like. Afghanistan and more especially the convoy routes of Iraq taught me that. Sometimes you see extreme grace as death nears, and it is a fiercely beautiful thing. This was the case in the final moment of Gerald Smith’s life. He died out in the middle of a long stretch of sun-splashed open highway fronting a glittering Lake Sakakawea under skies of electric blue, evading a surprise knife attack with skilled composure.
Oddly, Gerald never made an offensive or aggressive move. We may never know why. Yet clearly his moves and skill set were such that if he had wanted to, he could have better defended himself by going on the offense. He was every inch the prizefighter in his last moment—bobbing, weaving, ducking, turning, his back-and-away footwork the nearly perfect shuck-and-jive dance of a professional boxer. He was facing his attacker unarmed but with a remarkable fearlessness; a Peacemaker, trying to calm his killer without turning tail and running away. When you’re ambushed, caught out in the open, outnumbered, surrounded, with no place to run and no one to come to your aid, there’s not a lot you can do but play the deadly hand you’re dealt. Smith played that fatal hand well, facing his killer head on.
So what’s the point of all this, you ask? In Smith’s last seconds following a lightning thrust of a big knife to his heart, I bear witness to this: As he was slipping into shock, before he lost consciousness, Gerald Allan Smith was standing. His knees were failing, he was fighting for air. He died in pain, yes, but not for long. There was sorrow and resignation in his eyes–and determination, too–for he was never on his knees. Mark this–he died on his feet. That is what I will always remember about Gerald Allan Smith.
As a Métis man in the odd position of having been decorated by both the United States Army and recognized by the modern American Indian Movement, having had the humbling experience of eagle feathers gifted from a veteran of Wounded Knee, yet having served the 7th Cavalry in Tall-Afar, Sinjar and Al-Amarah, but more so as one who has experienced the battlefield and seen the most gallant of acts, I can offer this final tribute: In his final moment Gerald Allan Smith faced-down humanity’s greatest fear with supreme restraint and grace, with dignity, and with honor. In my eyes he proved himself a Warrior in the best sense. Whatever his life may have been, I would want you and his little boy to know that Gerald died bravely. There is much to be respected in that.
His killer’s verdict has been returned now—guilty of second-degree murder. Thank you to tireless FBI Agent Bruce Bennett and to rising star United States Assistant Prosecutor Rick Volk, who went well above and beyond what the Native American community likely expected or hoped for in the pursuit of justice, and to a jury who saw the truth and voted accordingly. Let our thoughts and prayers be now with Gerald’s son. Thank you and Godbless. ~ Selly