The gift of silence

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

My wife Ivy and I traveled to Grand Portage for a memorial service for a friend of ours. We had known Ernest for years and he died a few months ago. We had to go to another town first and we didn’t get to our hotel until after midnight.

The big room in the community center was full when we got there and someone was setting up a slide show and there were photos of him fishing and snowshoeing and being outdoors.

This was a community event and a potluck and there was lots of food. We stopped at the store and picked up some bakery things as we felt we had to bring something. Afterward we moved to a quieter room so people could tell stories about Ernest.  I learned he had a sister who first met him when she was twenty-five. She had been taken from her family when she was a baby and was raised by a white family and she was totally unaware of her Ojibwe heritage. She grew up only knowing she was different. She sought out and found her family and Ernest patiently taught her and now she lives her Ojibwe culture.

He had a good sense of humor. One of the women who remembered him worked in the bank and Ernest came in to cash a check and he told her, “I’ve got a few secrets, you know.” He cashed his check and they talked about the weather and some other small talk and he told her, “Yeah, I’ve got some secrets, but I’m not going to share them with you.”

“Why not?” She asked.

He answered, “Because you’re a teller.”

Ivy stood up. She used to work at a University and she curated an art show and it was a big event for twelve years under her direction. Ernest’s partner Marcie was the featured artist one year and that’s when we became friends. Ernest worked with leather and his work was sought after. He made a pair of moccasins and delivered them to a family during a Christmas Eve snowstorm when no other traffic was moving.

Ivy’s cousin talked of living in Detroit and never knowing what was going on in Grand Portage. His family started coming to Grand Portage every summer. They met Marcie and Ernest and they would catch them up on what was going on culturally and politically and Ernest was going to take Jason fishing. Something always got in the way and when it finally seemed like the right plans were in place, Ernest got sick and died before they could go. “I know I will see him again and we’ll fish together one day.”

I didn’t stand up and say anything because I couldn’t think of anything in particular that would tell a story that would mean anything to anybody. Ernest was my friend and we were always happy to see each other. It was usually in the summer when we traveled to Grand Portage for the Rendezvous Days powwow. We would always stop in and visit. He would usually be working on something and I would watch him carefully sewing or cutting. He would make it a point to show me how he worked and he would do that in silence and it felt good to stand next to him.

Everyone talked about the things he taught them and about his sense of humor and I didn’t have any of those stories. It wasn’t until we were on the long drive home with the mist over Lake Superior that I realized what he had given me. Ivy and I lead hectic lives and it seems like we’re always on a dead run heading somewhere with no breaks in between. There always seems to be someone or something pulling me in multiple directions and I’m always way behind in the things I need to do and I never seem to be able to lift that weight. I wake up behind in the morning and I go to bed with things unfinished and I don’t see that getting better any time soon.

Ernest knew that deep inside and he gave me something I didn’t even realize I needed. He gave me silence and he taught me in that silence. All of the fishing stories and his taking his sister back into his life and his sitting outside the art gallery working leather were in that silence. When I stood next to him I forgot the things I needed to do and those cares and stresses were a world away. All that mattered was friendship and the sounds of the powwow and the smell of the lake. For a brief moment I could let time slow down and simply stand next to a friend.

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe Language Camp starts in a couple of days at the Kiwenz Campground on Big Lake in Sawyer, Minnesota on June 14, 2018 and everyone is invited. I will be with families and friends and teachers I haven’t seen since last year. Some of them will be only memories as we have lost some of our teachers since the camp first started a decade ago.

I had the privilege of sitting and playing cards with them and laughing and eating and dancing with them and I will remember them. I also had the opportunity to sit in silence with them. We sat together and the empty spaces in the conversation were not empty at all. Those empty spaces were filled with love and respect and friendship and the comfort of being in each other’s presence.

Words are not always the best way to communicate and when you use them, make sure they matter. If someone is important to you, don’t wait to stand up at a memorial service.

Tell them now.

Come to the Language Camp. We’ll be waiting for you.

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 and he can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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