Did my grandfather vote?

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

My Ojibwe grandfather was taken from his family when he was young and was put into a boarding school. I don’t have many details and he never wanted to talk about it. Ojibwe was his first language, but he didn’t speak it around his grandchildren as he didn’t want us to be treated the way he was. Like all the children taken, he had his hair cut off, his clothes and any traditional items destroyed and he was given a uniform. He was beaten for speaking Ojibwe. The few times he did mention it were with bitterness.

When my grandparents were growing up there were federal programs to get Native people to relocate to cities to assimilate them into the dominant culture. The jobs they were able to get were menial and they had no union protection, no insurance, no retirement and they were completely expendable. There were no repercussions for mistreating them or firing them and my grandparents constantly lived under the fear someone at work would get mad at them. Even if they were taken advantage of, their only option was to remain quiet.

My grandparents used to get a new car every two years and they would trade in their old one. When they got a new car, they would drive over 200 miles north on the weekend to show everyone how well they were doing. My grandmother would wear her best clothes and my grandfather would wear a white shirt, black pants and shoes and belt to match. He combed Brylcreem into his hair and I can still remember the smell of it and how the top of the tube twisted off.

I don’t ever remember my grandparents or my mother discussing politics. I remember my mom crying when President Kennedy was assassinated, but nothing else.

When I was nine, my grandparents bought a brand new pale green 1967 Chevrolet Impala and it had 12 miles on it when they picked it up. That Saturday they put their best clothes on and they drove north to show it off. On the way, they were pulled over in a small town simply because my grandfather was Ojibwe and driving a new car. None of the paperwork he had mattered and they spent all day in the jail and weren’t allowed to call us. The guards had a tin cup they would drag across the bars of the cell when they walked by and they called my grandfather “Chief” and they taunted them for the trouble they were in. When they finally had confirmation my grandfather did own the car, they opened the cell door. Everyone knew what was expected and my grandfather complied.

He looked at the floor. “Thank you.” He said quietly.

Their visit was short and they had to leave early the next morning and had to go through a different town so they wouldn’t be stopped again on the way back.

I was excited the first time my brother Kelly and I went to Minneapolis to stay with them. The buildings were tall and we drove through downtown and almost couldn’t get close enough to the windows to see the tops of some of the buildings.

The days were not as exciting. I’d never seen a cockroach before and they were in the drawers and under the sink and they ran under the bathtub when I pulled on the chain for the bare single light bulb. We had to stay in the apartment while our grandparents were at work and were not allowed to talk to anyone. They both worked at the state sanitarium and my grandfather made ice cream and my grandmother worked in the laundry. They were too tired to spend much time with us when they got home. We were at the Ben Franklin store and Kelly and I were in the toy aisle wishing for different things we couldn’t have and there was a café in there with a long counter with a shiny green top and red and chrome stools that could spin around. The menu above the kitchen showed hamburgers and French fries and malts and we begged to eat there. My grandfather looked disgusted with us, but finally relented. All four of us sat at the counter and everyone else at the counter stopped talking and simply stared at us. The waitress was leaning back on the cooler with her arms crossed and she didn’t come to take our orders. She looked at my grandfather until he said, “Maybe we’ll go somewhere else.”

We went to a small café and it was mostly full of Native people. The paint on the walls was greasy and peeling and cigarette smoke hung thick in the air. I could smell bacon and burnt pancakes and we sat at a small booth with torn seats. The waitress didn’t say anything. She wiped the table with a single pass and pushed the salt and pepper shakers closer to the wall. She put napkins and glasses of water down and she threw four menus on the table and left. Kelly and I wanted the hamburger and French fries with a malt, but my grandmother said, “You caused enough trouble already, the hamburger steak dinner is the special and that’s what you’re getting.”

The waitress brought our food and the plates were loud as she dropped them on the table. She dropped spoons and forks and butter knives and left without saying anything. My fork had some hard food stuck between the tines and I held it up for the waitress to see and my grandfather grabbed it away from me. He took my butter knife and cut the food out of my fork and wiped it with his hand and handed it back to me.

The hamburger steak was tough and I had the dirty fork stuck in it and I was sawing on the steak with the butter knife. The hamburger was along the side of the plate and as I was sawing on it, the plate moved to the edge of the table and flipped over and landed on the floor. The gravy was in the dirt between the broken tiles and peas and carrots were everywhere. The waitress was glaring at us as she wiped the floor and she brought a mop and slapped it down angrily. When she left there were streaks of soap on the floor and I looked at the bubbles popping. She didn’t bring me another meal and I knew enough to stay quiet. My grandparents and my brother ate in silence and I didn’t look at their food as they ate.

We got outside and my grandmother leaned down and hissed, “What’s the matter with you? We brought you to a nice restaurant and all you did was embarrass us!”

I didn’t make eye contact with anyone I didn’t know during the rest of the week and I was happy when we were finally going home.

I cannot imagine either of my grandparents standing in a voting line and they would have been easy to intimidate. Any threats carried out against them would have no consequences and any pushback offered by my grandparents would result in their punishment.

We take much for granted and we live busy lives. My grandfather would have welcomed an opportunity to have a say in the way he was treated and in his future.

His vote would have mattered. My vote matters. Your vote matters.


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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