“Welcome to our land.”

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

The small plane was at the mercy of the wind as we were coming in to the remote airport. I could see the pilots in the cockpit and see the small airstrip we were aiming for through the windshield. The plane drifted wildly back and forth and the turbulence picked up as we were coming in. The airstrip would go out of view, then back in, then disappear out the other side of the windshield as the plane twisted from side to side. At the very last second, the pilot straightened out the plane and the propellers roared to slow the plane as we bounced down the runway. I came to know this as a pretty typical landing coming in to the remote First Nations reserves in Northwest Ontario, Canada.

It was early March in the middle of the polar vortex that had been freezing Canada and most of the United States. I had been brought in to these remote reserves by the Northwest Community Care Access Center (Thunder Bay) to show Walking into the Unknown and to somehow see if a better link could be established between these remote communities and the medical providers who served them. I really had no idea what to expect and no idea how I would be received. Over the course of four days we flew into two communities that are fly-in only with the exception of a short-lived winter road made of packed snow and ice. Big trucks tear up these roads and make the 12-hour drive to the next town long and treacherous. We drove into two slightly less remote reserves. On the fifth day I was scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at a large diabetes conference and I had no idea what I was going to say.

Nancy picked us up in the first village and as we drove through the rough streets she asked, “anybody want a dog?” This was hilarious as the dogs followed us through the village and waited for us outside the community center. There was a meal and maybe thirty people were there. As I started the film, most of them left and there were less than ten who watched the film. But one of them was a member of the tribal council and she worries for the health of her people.

The next day we flew in to another remote community and Gary picked us up. He had the entire day planned and we were busy going from one place to the next. We toured the village and he brought us to the tribal center. The council was in session and there were two elders with them. We were introduced and the Chief stood solemnly and told us about their community. He showed us a painting on the wall with all of the clans represented. He talked of them and what they mean and then he turned around and said with great formality:
“Welcome to our land. Thank you for bringing something good to our people.”

We went to the radio station and spent about a half hour on the air and I was able to talk about the film and tell the community to come to the showing. The film showing was well attended and Gary and Starsky were hooking old speakers to an equally old amplifier with cables that didn’t look like they were going to fit. They showed the film on the wall with an ancient projector and this was technically one of the best showings of the film ever. The room was silent afterward and no one had any questions. I talked for a while about our risks for diabetes and the need for us to address our medical conditions so we can live to be the elders our children and grandchildren will depend on. One woman shyly raised her hand and asked a question about medicines and then the floodgates opened. They asked and I answered questions for almost an hour after the film was over. I was told later, “I don’t know what you said to them, but I’ve never seen people so excited about anything!”

The next day we flew from Thunder Bay to Kenora. Every flight we were on had multiple stops in small communities. We drove to one of the remote communities and were met by Carol. She took us to tour the clinic and we went to the school. In the last four weeks this community had suffered four deaths, including one of their most traditional and beloved elders. The last death was the suicide of a young girl and the community was still reeling in shock and devastation and the fear of what could come next. We met with one of the counselors from the school and the film was scheduled to show in the Trapper Hall at 1:00 right after lunch. He asked if I could come and talk to the teachers and counselors at 12:20 during their lunch break.

When I came back all of them were waiting for me in the library. The tension in the room was palpable as I put Walking into the Unknown into the video system and the lights went off. I showed the suicide segment of the film and when the lights came back on there was total silence. I began to talk to them.

“Our children need you. In a 24-hour day, if they sleep for 8 hours it means they spend fully half their lives with you. You have a huge influence on how they see themselves and how they see the world. They depend on you for knowledge and they depend on you to teach them fairness and trust and love. They need you to show them there is something outside these walls to live for. They need you to show them inside these walls lives safety and forgiveness and to remind them of the dreams they had when they were small.

There has been tragedy here and this is not new. Our people used to raise our children as communities and all of us watched out for each other’s children. We moved to the sugar bush and the ricing camps as a community and our children were taught by our elders to be the elders of the future. The elders told our creation stories and our children learned to be part of that community through our stories.

Time and mercury poisoning and drugs and alcohol have done us deep harm. We had several generations of children taken from our families and put into boarding schools and our stories were made to be forgotten. We no longer raise our children as a community and we need to get this back. There are many working on this, but that is still in the future.

You need to know if you live among us and teach our children, you are a part of this community. The color of your skin means nothing. We need your knowledge and our children need your understanding and they need to see your hope for them in your eyes. My people are good at seeing insincerity in others and they are good at seeing defeat. You carry much of the hope for our children and you need to always remember why you came into our communities in the first place. Your coming here was an act of faith and an act of love. Our children need you. We need you.

Welcome to our land. Thank you for bringing something good to our people.”

Afternoon classes were about to begin and the teachers had to leave. One of them was crying and she came up to me and said, “I’ve been here for six years and no one ever told me I was a part of this community.”  She leaned in close and hugged me and whispered, “Thank you.”

Another teacher told me he was watching for four kids in particular and was going to hug them in the hallway and tell them what they did right that day.

As I left the school, the dogs in the community were outside playing with the kids. There were three second or third grade boys jumping from a snow bank and they had to make sure I saw each of them jump, “Watch me! Watch me!”

I asked them to show me again. We were all laughing as I walked to the car to show the film for the community at the Trapper Hall.

This unscheduled showing of Walking into the Unknown for our teachers is possibly the single most important thing I have ever done as a father and a husband and a doctor. This impromptu meeting in the library is exactly why I was on all those plane rides and all those wild landings.

Those boys jumping from the snow bank are the future suicides in our communities, but only if we allow it. What we tell our children and what we say to each other makes a difference.

I saw two doctors and a lawyer jumping from that snow bank.

“Watch me! Watch me!”

I’m watching.

We all need to be.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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