Troy Canty stood straight as any steel beam next to the casket draped with the American flag.
In his hands, what members of the Catawba Indian Nation call the “Eagle Staff” – made of wood and leather and feathers – that only a combat veteran of American wars who is a member of this tribe is entitled to hold.
Catawba drummers pounded out a rhythm and sang in a language only a few living ears know. Marines then folded the flag in a procedure that is understood by all.
Two cultures came together Friday to honor a man who spent a lifetime working to do just that – bring people together.
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Inside the casket lay not just a Marine Corps veteran, but the assistant chief of a people who called this land home long before any settler showed up. Roger Wayne George, always called Wayne, died Jan. 21. He was 67.
“I was rotating into Vietnam and I met Wayne George from home in a PX,” said Canty, a fellow Marine. “It is an honor to hold this (Eagle Staff) today.
“I stand here for him. He stood for all of us.”
At 17, George quit high school to join the Marines, volunteering for combat in the Vietnam War in an era of the military draft. He refused a cushy assignment because he so loved an America that, in those mid-1960s, did not recognize his dark skin as the equal of white skin.
He was one of about 30 men from a unit of about 300 to survive combat in Vietnam. One siege lasted three days. He spent the rest of his life wondering why he survived, and doing what a tough man who survived could do to help others.
George was elected assistant chief in 2011 and re-elected in 2015. Friday was a day to talk about how the tribe will have another assistant chief – but never another Wayne George.
Chief Bill Harris told mourners at the Catawba Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints near the Catawba reservation in eastern York County that George was so proud of his heritage as a Catawba Indian – and at the same time such a loyal, courageous and heroic American.
Harris spread his arms.
“He gave us all what we have today,” Harris said. “He had the blood of the Catawba flowing through him.” Wayne George, he said, “represented all native people.”
George was a throwback. Harris described a rough and tumble kid who played football – barefoot – in elementary school and who fought because he liked to fight. After joining the Marines and seeing the worst of humanity in war, Harris said, George came home to try to make a life.
He married, had children and worked for four decades in construction – building everything from tribal homes and tribal roads to overseeing construction of the tribal Longhouse and the original Catawba bingo hall.
After becoming an officer with the tribe, George worked locally on programs for children and teens, seniors and everyone in between. He worked with other tribes around the country to help American Indian veterans, an issue near to his heart.
Harris – speaking to all in attendance, Catawbas and not, veterans and not – said of Wayne George, “He fought for you.”
The connection between Catawba heritage and military tradition was all over Friday’s funeral and burial. Veterans lined the way in and out. Flags flew. Catawba combat veterans, with a dignity from some deep source, saluted.
With Wayne George gone, Harris said through tears, “the Longhouse is cold.”
Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065