Jathan Chicoine and his wife, Racheal Ruble, are restoring prairie north of Ames with the help of a small bison herd.
Writer: Brianne Sanchez
Photographer: Duane Tinkey
Before basic training, before Afghanistan, before the Mississippi, before Peru and Paris, before Central Iowa and his bison, Jathan Chicoine emerged from a purification lodge and was surrounded by the Nakota tribal community in ceremony. Tribal elders and veterans stood Chicoine next to his mother as they shared traditional soldier songs for a young warrior about to embark on his military career.
“That foundational experience came to unfold in my life in meaningful ways,” says Chicoine, 44, who is French Canadian by heritage (his name is pronounced “shiquinn”). His mother had been working as a tribal drug and alcohol counselor, and the ceremony was arranged through the generosity of the Wase Wakpa community.
“My mom called him a grasshopper,” says Chad Neilson, a member of the Nakota community who was part of the ceremony that day in 1994, and who has been a friend and teacher to Chicoine ever since.
“He was friendly, inquisitive, kind and caring,” Neilson recalls of the then 17-year-old Chicoine, adding that not much has changed: “He’s honorable.”
Later as a graduate student in South Dakota, Chicoine co-founded a Veterans Resource Center and began the cross-cultural work that he continues today as a program manager for Home Base Iowa, which connects veterans and transitioning service members with career opportunities in the state.
“For me to be able to continue working with veterans is an honor and a privilege,” Chicoine says. “We have veterans of different branches, generations, wars, conflicts, demographics.”
His goal is to uplift common qualities of veterans—a mission-focused mindset, risk calculation, innovation—that make them incredible contributors. He’s interested in shifting conversations with veterans, their families and business leaders from focusing on post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth.
Ceremony bookmarks many of the most meaningful chapters of Chicoine’s life. He would return to the tribe for a re-grounding ritual following his service as a U.S. Navy SEAL and intelligence specialist.
He left the military shortly before the attacks of 9/11 and was uncertain whether he would be called back into service. After several restless months, Chicoine needed a sense of renewal and a chance to explore his freedom.
“We’re missing a reintegration ceremony,” Chicoine says of the official military process of returning to civilian life. For him, it was purely bureaucratic.
To reconnect, he set off on a solo kayak trip down the Mississippi River. It was October, and at the end of his first day paddling from Hastings, Minnesota, with a fishing pole and a copy of “Huckleberry Finn,” he recalls seeing an eagle land on the sandbar just ahead, a huge fish in its talons.
“When you give up on humanity and there’s a lot of negativity, you need to do a trip like that,” he says.
When he finally pulled out at Hannibal, Missouri, that December, one of the people who had heard about his journey was Racheal Ruble, a college student at the time whose mother persuaded her to come home to meet the kayaker who was sleeping in the attic of an 1800s church. They connected at an art gallery, and met again on a trip to Paris the following spring. Later, the couple married.
“In all of his travels and everywhere he goes, [Jathan] can make those connections quickly,” Ruble says. “He’s very open, very curious, very interested in people, and they respond to that.”
After his time traversing the river, Chicoine hitchhiked home with other adventures in mind. “I wanted to learn languages; I wanted to interact cross-culturally,” he says. A trip to Peru to work with local healers set the stage for graduate studies in cultural anthropology.
He and Racheal returned to the Story County area where he had roots, and later welcomed daughter Mirai. There, they are restoring endangered remnant prairie and oak savanna ecosystems on a family acreage. They’ve reintroduced bison and manage a small family herd, which contributes to biodiversity.
“I find a lot of balance when I’m working on the farm,” Chicoine says. “The farm is a place of healing, and inspiration for greater excellence.”
He tells of a powerful traditional tribal “singing in” ceremony that welcomed the bison back to the land, and likens the animal’s strength and fortitude to that of his fellow veterans, whom he sometimes invites out to experience the environment. For Chicoine, fostering the inclusive biodiversity of life on his farm and inviting others to share in it is central to this chapter.
“The human experience is continually flowing, rather than having a beginning and an ending,” he says. “That story is continuing to unfold, and I think that’s the excitement of all of it.