Life takes some interesting turns

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country June 2011

Last year I showed a segment from “Walking into the Unknown” to a prison system as part of a cultural awareness exercise for them. This was not for the inmates, but for the staff at the prison. What I had to say was well received, but it started me thinking about our prison inmates. Native Americans are a disproportionately higher percentage of the prison population than the percentage in the general population.

Are we somehow worse as a people? Of course not. I don’t want to make excuses, but generations of displacement, termination policies, broken treaties, poverty and oppression have had effects. Being displaced to reservations brought an end to a life tied to the changing seasons and an end to many of our ceremonies. We had an entire generation taken away from their parents and placed in boarding schools.

Those children lost the opportunity to learn how to be parents in the traditional ways. Gone are the ceremonies for rites of passage. When do boys become men? When do girls become women? These used to be ceremonies with defined outcomes. The life of drugs and gangs seems glamorous to many of our children. WE need to be doing their initiations into the next phase of their lives.

I was lost when I was 12 years old and would have followed my uncle Lloyd into hell if he was going there. How many lost kids do we have now? How many prisoners do we have because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Again, I am not making excuses, I’m sure there are plenty of genuinely bad people in prison. I have gotten letters from prisoners before, but most were asking me for narcotics for pain or to somehow intervene in their sentence. These are things I could not help them with.

But a few weeks ago, I got a letter from a prison in Maryland.

“Boozhoo, Dr. Vainio. I returned from Vietnam in 1974. In 1981 I was sentenced to life plus 25 years in prison and I’ve been here ever since. I understand your wife, Ivy, produced a documentary called “Walking into the Unknown” in 2009. I would like to get a copy for our Native Men’s group here. I am also interested in any books and newspaper articles, traditional language courses, or anything else you can send me. As I only make $17.00 a month, I have no way of paying for these items.”

He also enclosed 2 duck feathers and a snow goose feather in a separate envelope.

Ivy and I took this very seriously. We went into the woods and offered asemaa so we could gather the red willow she needed to make dream catcher hoops and for me to make kinnickinnick. Ivy made the dream catcher and carefully put one of the duck feathers into the web. I spent the evening slowly peeling the outer bark of the red willow so I could scrape the white inner bark for the kinnickinnick.

I signed a DVD of “Walking into the Unknown” to the prisoners and wrote this on the cover in permanent marker:  “Robert has asked me for a copy of this film for the Native Men’s group. I give this willingly.

Why?  Because you matter.

Some of you will be coming back home to our people. Some of you will never come back. Those who stay need to make sure they teach those who come back to us. You need to leave prison life in prison. Do not bring the way of life that got you into prison back home to our children. We are depending on you and trust you fully to do this. We NEED you to do this for us.”

We also included a copy of Jim Northrup’s book, Walking the Rez Road, that he had autographed to us. We put all the native newspapers we could find into the box. We get newspapers from the reservations that run my articles and sent as many of these as we could find.

Several weeks later a second letter came to us. It was nine pages long.

“Boozhoo!  I received the video, books and newspapers…but the most wonderful gift of all was the dream catcher…miigwech a thousand times over. This is the first dream catcher I have ever had.”

He loved the story about my dog Kevin and my story about Agnes made him cry. Jim Northrup’s book and his poetry connected to him on a “jarhead” level. He also really liked Ricey Wild’s column and was hoping I could let her know that.

And he sent paintings. Beautiful paintings first penciled in, then inked in for detail, then painted with acrylic paint. His canvas is sections cut from sheets.   A turtle painting for Ivy, a wolf painting for me (and my dog, Kevin) and a Vietnam Veteran painting for Jim Northrup. And he sent an eagle painting for Ricey Wild (Ricey, email me). I can see into his heart and soul in every one of his paintings.

“I was taught that when you ask someone for something you make an offering, and what better offering than the few cherished feathers I’ve managed to scavenge these last 31 years in prison? They were all I had to offer.  Miigwech for your letter and all the gifts.”

Why should I care about someone who’s in prison for life? Because he does matter. We need every single one of us to keep our traditions alive. Rehabilitation comes in two forms. It can be done from the outside or it can be done from the inside. Only when it comes from the inside can it truly last.

And me? I think my path is going to include prisons. I have a feeling I’m destined to travel to Maryland some day. You and I will meet face to face, Robert. I believe your rehabilitation does come from the inside. We will shake hands and bridge the gap between us.

Why? Because you matter.

Miigwech for your letter and all the gifts.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.