Now I can leave as a man and a grandfather

By Arne Vainio, M.D.

News From Indian Country - November 2012

I was invited to talk to the Native American inmates at a Federal Prison last week. These were fifteen men from twelve different tribes across the United States.
I showed Walking into the Unknown and after the film we talked as men. What started out as an hour and a half turned into three and a half hours. We sat in a circle as equals and we talked about what we need to expect from each other to keep our people strong.

I sometimes get a little bit nervous before talking to some groups, but never as much as I did on this day. There was a lot riding on connecting with these men and they are important to what happens to us as Native people.

These men are role models, whether any of us like it or not. We need these men to come back to our communities and to not bring prison life back with them. Only they can know the loss of freedom that comes from choosing the wrong path. I recently read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and this book seriously changed the way I look at the world. In the book, people spoke in hushed tones around Tom Joad because he’d been in prison for killing a man. Tom Joad was a good man and was dedicated to his family and I truly saw good in these men.

I don’t know what any of them did, but when they go back home they will have the same effect Tom Joad did and people will talk in those same hushed tones around them. They can perpetuate the spiral to prison or they can stop it. We are losing our young people to drugs and gangs and alcohol and prison will be waiting for many of them. We are a throw away society. We throw away plastic and we throw away Styrofoam cups.

And we throw away people. This was the first time in a very long time for most of these men to hear someone tell them just how important they are to our next generations.

This was a good day. Some of these men are extremely traditional and all have had time to think and reflect on their lives. I was invited back by the inmates for ceremonies and I gladly accepted their invitation.

When they asked me to come back and invited me to their ceremonies, I implied I might have used up everything I had to say and that was it. But this was really just the beginning and was an extremely draining and emotional day for all of us. I had a headache all day after my visit and I rarely get them. It wasn’t caused by anything bad that happened there, but I heard tragic stories.

All of these men have lost friends and family to suicide. One of them told me his nephew committed suicide and he watched his sister drink herself to death over the course of three years after the death of her son and there was nothing he could do to stop her.

The last time one of the men saw his son was when his son was a little boy. He has since heard that his son is now in prison.

There are men here who are veterans and served their country and their people with honor.

This is Veteran’s Day as I write this and I think of our warriors who have gone far from home to serve and protect those who honor them.

And those who do not.

I do not know the anxiety of waiting for a plane that will take me from my family and put me someplace far away with the expectation I will do things that go against my upbringing.

I do not know the anguish of watching my brother or my sister die while I stand helplessly by and can do nothing to change the outcome.

I do not know the heartache of coming back home and not being able to find work or even to find help or understanding.
I will never know any of these things thanks to our warriors, veterans, Ogichidaa.

Since I have been to the prison, I have had people tell me it’s wrong to speak to prisoners as equals and that they are in prison for doing terrible things.


These men are in prison with the expectation from society that they are going to change for the better. They should be able to expect the same from us in return. This is what I will talk about when I go back for ceremonies and when it’s my turn to speak in the sweat lodge.

If we look for and expect evil and despair, we will find them. I found goodness and hope in these men.
One of the men told me as he shook my hand as I was leaving:

“My life to this point has been nothing but near-death experiences. This has been my first near-life experience.
I was planning on leaving here as a convict. Now I can leave as a man and a grandfather.”

Arne Vainio, M.D. is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota and is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..