“Welcome to our land.” Part 2

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

In early March I was invited to Ontario, Canada to travel to four remote First Nations communities to see if I could somehow help provide a link between the communities and the medical providers who serve them. On the last day I was one of the keynote speakers at a large diabetes conference in Thunder Bay. Even as I was at the conference listening to the other presenters I still did not have a clear idea of what I was going to say. The expectation was that I could provide some insight into how to get First Nations people to follow the health recommendations brought to them.

Just before I spoke one of the providers came up to me and proceeded to tell me how difficult it was to bring medical care to people who were totally dysfunctional. He spent quite a bit of time elaborating on this and didn’t really give me a chance to answer. Mostly, I was listening.

I was given a brief introduction and I walked up to the podium. I introduced myself in Ojibwe without translating and launched directly into the suicide segment of Walking into the Unknown. This segment is about 10 minutes long and I didn’t tell them what to expect. It hit them hard and there was total silence as the lights came back on. I told them of differences in the way First Nations people interact with each other. Looking directly into someone’s eyes for many traditional people is a sign of disrespect and looking at the floor shows respect. This is easily misinterpreted as not paying attention to what is being said.

Asking questions after someone is done talking sometimes means you’re saying the other person wasn’t speaking clearly and left out parts of the story.

Putting your hand softly into someone else’s on greeting is respectful and a strong handshake is disrespectful. All these things can be easily misinterpreted as indifference by someone from another culture.

I spoke of my brother Kelly’s death at age 53 and my sister Shelly’s death at age 55 the year before. I spoke of my mother’s death at age 59 on the night I graduated from residency.

I spoke to them about boarding schools and having several generations of children made to lose our stories and our language and our ways of parenting. I told them of the abuse and the death suffered at the hands of those who took our children.

I told them of a community downstream from a paper mill still poisoned by ten metric tons of mercury dumped into the water forty-three years ago. Mercury doesn’t go away and they cannot drink the water and they cannot eat the fish.

But they have no choice. They drink the water.

They eat the fish.

I told them of the suicide of a young girl the day before I arrived and being asked to meet with the teachers and counselors in the school who were rightfully terrified other suicides would follow. They had no idea who I was but they listened to me because they had nowhere else to turn.

I wanted them to feel the pain in these communities. I wanted them to hurt and I wanted them to grieve. I wanted them to cry openly.

They did.

I told them of flying into a community and having their Chief stand and formally say:

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

I told them of going to a drug and alcohol treatment center the night before to show the alcoholism segment of Walking into the Unknown to twenty-two of our lost and struggling. I went there to tell them we need them back in our communities and we need them clean and sober. We need them to remember they are important and the dreams and hopes they had as children are still worth striving for.

I told them how my grandfather and grandmother barely made enough money to buy a new car every 2 or 3 years working in Minneapolis. They would trade in their old car and the first thing they would do is drive 250 miles north to show off their new car and they would dress up to make the trip.

I told them how they were stopped in a small town and put in jail for an entire day because the police chief did not believe Indian people could buy a new car. The guard rattled a tin cup on the jail bars and called my grandfather “Chief” and called my grandmother a squaw and at the end of the day when the police finally verified it was my grandfather’s car and opened the cell door my grandfather thanked them because he knew that’s what they expected.

I told them when the cashier in a store would put the change into the hand of the person in front of me and put my change on the counter I would be angry for generations before me, for my grandfather and his grandfather.

I told them how my grandfather walked to the mailbox for years to see if the land settlement check he was promised showed up and when it finally did it was for five dollars and sixty-one cents and how that was the day he began to die. I used to visit him in the nursing home on weekends when I was in medical school and he would tell me stories. He told me his father died in the Agwajiing Tuberculosis Sanitarium and that night his father came to the foot of his bed:
 
“He was dressed in light blue pants and a light blue shirt. He said, ‘Come with me, son’, but I was afraid and I didn’t talk to him. I shook my head, no.

My younger brother died that night.”

I told them of my Family Practice Board recertification and going to Atlanta for an intense review course and sitting in the Ebenezer Baptist Church and walking the streets and alleys Martin Luther King, Jr. walked. I told them how a homeless man played the trumpet just for me and how he played from somewhere so deep in his soul it had to come from his ancestral home.

I was told at the review course that on exam day I should get up early and shower and wear my best clothes. I told them people who work in call centers have difficult jobs and are trained to smile when they talk on the phone because the person on the other end can tell if they’re smiling.

I told them my people can sense insincerity and they can sense defeat. They can tell if you think they are dysfunctional or hopeless or alcoholic or whatever other labels you can put on them.

They can also tell when someone truly respects them and is willing to meet them on their own grounds.

I asked if there were any questions. There were none.

I reminded them I introduced myself in Ojibwe when I first started and didn’t translate. Why didn’t anyone ask what I said?

“You didn’t ask because I was from another place, from another culture. My hair is different than yours and my skin is a different color. I used words you didn’t understand and I may have been saying something sacred. You didn’t ask because it would be disrespectful and uncomfortable. Maybe interactions between our people have not gone well before. Maybe you thought I assumed you already understood what I was telling you. Maybe you were afraid of me.

Maybe asking would make me think you were ignorant.

We need what you bring to us and our people are suffering. We need your help with no predispositions and we need you to work with us with the understanding we have lived on this land forever.

Diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, stroke and suicide cannot be unlinked from each other. They need healing all at the same time.

The border between Canada and the United States is an imaginary line on a map to me. I traveled to these communities and I spent the last week with my brothers and my sisters.

I was home.”

I told them the same thing the Chief of Sandy Lake told me:

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

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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