Tonight he travels without me

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
Photos by Ivy Vainio
News From Indian Country

George Earth and I traveled across Minnesota and then across South Dakota so I could speak at a conference a couple of years ago. I was supposed to fly, but George told me he always wanted to see the Black Hills and at 79 years old, he didn’t think he had many chances left.

We took turns driving and spent the better part of a day in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We crossed the big sky country of Wyoming on the way to the Wind River Mountains and George told me stories about growing up, about boarding school when he was young and being released from school to pick potatoes with his parents in the huge potato fields of North Dakota. He told me stories of traveling all day on muddy roads with his dad’s Model T and his mother holding a kerosene lantern for heat and for the lights for the car. His dad put tire patches over other tire patches and even as a kid George was good at helping change tires. A good used inner tube was four dollars and one with only a few patches was two dollars.

His dad always got the two dollar one.

“The old people used to tell stories when the sun went down in the winter. It was still early and the kids would be in bed and the elders would tell creation stories in Ojibwe and they never spoke English when they told those stories. They could only be told in Ojibwe.”

One time he worked as a lumberjack on an island for a whole summer and he got paid over three hundred dollars and he bought a black Ford convertible with a white top. He and a friend got all dressed up and drove to a town close to the Canadian border. “Some girls started flirting with us and they got into the car and we were riding around. Some of the guys in that town didn’t like that and they followed us and I turned into an alley and I couldn’t turn around. There were too many of them and they beat us up. When I came to, the tires on my car were slashed and all the spark plug wires were gone and I didn’t have enough money to fix the car. I had to leave the car at a garage and we agreed to go into another logging camp and I had to cut wood for 3 months again before I had enough money to fix that car.”

He spent years drinking and working off and on. He and a friend lived in an old abandoned car for over a year in St. Paul and they would go to the shelter at the church every day to have breakfast and take showers and try to find work for the day.

He forgot about his traditions and his drinking spiraled out of control.

“One day I was drinking with everyone else in the park by Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis and I decided that was enough. I took all the beer and wine out of the trunk of my car and I put it on the picnic table in front of them and I told them I was done and they laughed at me.”

Someone in recovery gave him a vest and a bustle to wear and he started dancing as a traditional dancer at powwows. “It took me a long time to remember some of the things those old people tried to tell me and finding my traditions again saved me.” George has been a traditional dancer since then and his dance outfit was given to him over time by friends and sometimes by dancers who were too old to keep dancing and wanted their regalia to stay in the powwow circle. “When I dance, every step is a prayer for healing for all Indian people.”

He had a guitar with nylon strings and “Man, I could really sing! I used to play at weddings, even. I played everything from Johnny Cash to Merle Haggard and people would really like it when I brought out that guitar.”

Last summer he was supposed to travel with me to the Association of American Indian Physicians annual meeting just north of Seattle. He was really excited about seeing hundreds of Native American doctors and medical students and health professionals and he would have much to teach in return.

He was too short of breath to make the trip and his breathing problems were getting rapidly worse. He saw a lung specialist and it wasn’t long before he was on oxygen. He had more and more difficulty traveling and last spring he danced at a powwow and realized he couldn’t make it all the way around the circle. At the end of the summer he passed all of his dance regalia to me and I danced for the first time at the Cha Cha Bah Ning traditional powwow in Inger, Minnesota wearing George’s dance regalia as George watched from a chair under the trees at the edge of the circle. A young grass dancer and I became friends and we were dancing together and I watched George slowly make his way across the ring and he sat at one of the drums. I could see his arm rising and falling in unison with the other singers and I tried to separate out his voice from the others, but I couldn’t. His voice blended in perfectly with the song and with the wind blowing through the trees.

He made his last trip here a month or so ago and, “I brought something I want you to have.” His breathing has been getting steadily worse and on this last trip he didn’t get out of the van to come into the house. He watched me open the guitar case on the driveway next to the van. Inside was his guitar from a long time ago and it hadn’t been opened or played in decades.

“It’s beautiful, but I don’t know how to play a guitar, George.”

“You’ll learn. I did.”

We’ve been talking almost every day on the phone and sometimes I call him late at night. I go outside and I listen to the night and I tell him what I see and what I hear. We’ve heard the first frogs together and we’ve heard geese migrating together and one night last spring I was sitting in the darkness and I could hear a steady, but quiet popping sound everywhere in the woods and it sounded like a gentle rain, but the sky was clear. It took me a long time to realize it was the new spring grass slowly growing and as it pushed on the leaves, a leaf would fall to the side and make a small, singular sound. Multiplied by all those blades of grass and leaves and the sound was steady and only at night when the wind was gone. It would have sounded crazy to tell anyone but George I was listening to the grass grow. He understood it fully and he stayed on the phone as I described it to him in detail.

Today George got sick really fast and was having a hard time breathing. I got a call as I was finishing clinic that he had pneumonia and they were thinking he might need to be on a ventilator. On the way home I got another call that his blood pressure was really low and he had an infection in his blood. By the time I got home he was getting CPR in the hospital and they were unable to save him and he died.

I started a fire outside and we made a spirit dish with the food from our meal and some of the traditional tobacco I make. In Ojibwe, I thanked the spirits who watch over us and I invited all of them to share this meal with us. After our meal, I took the spirit dish with the food and I burned it in the fire with the tobacco.

I’ve been watching that fire all night and it’s almost 6 AM. The sun will be coming up soon. All night I’ve been tending the fire and I sit next to it and I listen to the night for awhile, then I come in and write for awhile, then I go back outside to tend and sit by the fire. The frogs just started singing in the past few nights and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to sit and listen to the night and I can hear the gentle popping sound everywhere in the woods and it sounds like a gentle rain.

The grass is growing.

Giigawaabamin, George. I will dance your regalia and I will remember every step is a prayer. I will try to learn some Johnny Cash songs.

And I will see you again.

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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