Our traditions are what will save us

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

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe Language immersion camp keeps getting bigger and better. Last year over 700 people signed in and this year it was 1,254. The weather was sunny and breezy and it was another four days of listening to elders and fluent speakers telling stories and teaching the language and learning traditional skills from those who still maintain those ways.

In four days, this is more than just a camp, this is a community. We continue to make new friends every year and this is the only time we see some of our friends from previous years.

Jim and Pat Northrup and Rick Gresczyk are the driving force behind the camp happening every year, but there are others who help make this happen. The residents of the treatment center help put up the shelters for the various activities and stations and they are welcome as participants in the camp.

People travel from far away to attend the camp and this year the farthest traveler was from Norway and there was someone from Germany in attendance.

When I’m at the language camp, I almost forget my other place in the world outside the camp. The world slows down and I can listen to the wind in the trees and the waves of the lake softly lapping on the shore.  I can listen to the birds having their conversations above us.

Hope Flanagan guided the nature walk along the road and into the woods. I was with my friend Ted and we were listening to Hope talk about each plant we came to and how it was used as food or medicine or what its utilitarian purpose is. I saw these plants as vital to our way of life and she teaches the lessons these plants carry and also that they want to help us and to heal us. There was an elder, Mary, in the group and she had stories about each of the plants and told about the uses they had for her. Some that are considered weeds are actually medicines that have been used for long before western medicine was developed.

Hope works at the Anishinabe Academy, a public school in south Minneapolis and she teaches about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. The things she had to say and to teach really go with what I have been concerned about in my practice. Alcohol and nontraditional tobacco use have done generations of damage to us and cancers are not rare among Native people. Our smoking rates are high.

But drugs are really becoming a problem on reservations and I have seen far too many babies go through drug withdrawals after they’re born. Watching a newborn baby try to scratch all his skin off is something no one should have to witness. Hearing the high pitched mewing cry of a baby withdrawing from Methadone or methamphetamine is heartbreaking. I watched a baby boy suck on his hand so hard that his entire hand was covered with a giant blister.

That’s in the first few days.

What happens over a lifetime to a baby born without his or her best chance at a healthy start?

Since the language camp we have lost 2 of our leaders. Marge Anderson was the first female tribal chair in Minnesota. She was the chair of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe from 1998-2000 and again from 2008-2012. She was a leader in using resources to improve social programs, schools and clinics and was instrumental in the treaty rights of Ojibwe people. She was fluent in the language and knowledgeable about our traditions. She made her mark on more than just the Mille Lacs Band and her dedication has had impacts nationwide. She died at the age of 81.

William “Bill” Houle served as a member of the tribal council and tribal chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe for 20 years. He was a Navy Veteran and understood the concept of service to his people. He was tribal chair from 1974-1988 and he worked hard to establish the groundwork for the tribe’s current enterprises. He worked hard for his reservation, but also for policies that improved the lives of all tribes. He was also 81 when he died.

When we lose an elder we lose a library of our traditions and our language, especially if they have been dedicated to making sure our people advance and get treated fairly in today’s world. Our past leaders set the stage for our current and future leaders to continue to make sure we survive as a people.

Our future leaders are somewhere in the kids that are at the language camp swimming and swinging on the swings. I have been asked to do a mad science demonstration at the language camp every year and this has proven to be pretty popular. This year we used dry ice to make bubbles filled with fog and we did some experiments with liquid nitrogen. We cooled a 3 pound plate of copper down to 321 degrees below zero and gave it some of the properties of a superconductor and almost levitated a magnet.

How does that fit in to an Ojibwe Language immersion camp?

Our people have always observed and learned from the world around them. Our traditional medicines come from our ancestors watching the animals and learning from them. They listened to the wind in the trees and they knew if the weather was going to change and when it was time to harvest wild rice by watching the geese and the ducks and the red-winged blackbirds.

I want our young people to be excited about science and I want them to know they don’t have to sacrifice their traditions to do it. I want our future scientists and doctors and leaders to know they can walk in both worlds fully and completely.

I want Marge Anderson’s and Bill Houle’s dreams to be fulfilled.

I don’t want any of us to ever have to see a baby trying to scratch off all of his skin.

Hope showed us a plant, manidoo-biimaakwad, the Virginia Creeper. If you see one, you will see others and they are connected to each other under the ground. At the close of the language camp Jim and Pat Northrup and Rick Gresczyk presented me with a ribbon shirt with the Marine Vietnam combat colors. I know the significance of that for Jim and it’s a high honor. I will wear it when we honor Ivy’s great uncle Johnny Mercer at the American Cemetery in Luxembourg.

Everyone danced as the drum group played a traveling song and we were all connected through the earth we were dancing on.

We are a community and our traditions are what will save us.

Arne Vainio, M.D. 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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