I thought I might stop writing

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country
 
I’ve taken a few months off writing and when I stopped, I really wondered if I was going to start again. When I first started, I had an editor at a newspaper who continually changed what I wrote and wanted to assign me things to write about. I was told I couldn’t keep writing the stories I was writing and that I would eventually run out of them.
 
I’ve thought about this often over the past few years and I often worried she may be right. I had someone pull me aside at an event and let me know he was unhappy with something I wrote because it could have been more politically active and that I could have put someone on the spot. It was implied that I stopped short of serving the needs of our people.
 
I’ve been told my stories were self serving and I only select stories that make me look good at the expense of other people.
 
I have taken the past few months to really think about this and to see if there is something inside me I need to change.
 
 Maybe all of those things are true.
 
I do not want them to be.
 
Our history is not a history written by our people. The written history we have is from people who were not a part of our culture, who did not understand it and wanted to see it disappear forever.
 
Our elders have always taught our lessons through stories and participation and by example. Our creation stories show what happens when even the spirits are foolish and when they get greedy. They also show what happens when they are wise and generous and share their gifts. They show that each of us has a reason to be here and that we learn from each other as we also teach each other.
 
This is why I write. The stories come to me in the form of people and in the form of families. The struggles and heartaches that come from a diagnosis of cancer or heart disease or a death from substance abuse are all struggles and heartaches we will someday face. I see strength come from places I would least expect and I see love and forgiveness happen sometimes just in time.
 
And sometimes too late.
 
I write about being a husband and a father and I feel either that has absolutely nothing to do with medicine or that it has absolutely everything to do with medicine.
 
Last month my sister died. This was the first time my brothers and sisters and I have had to bury someone from our generation. My wife Ivy and I have been through this too many times and have been the ones making most of the calls and arrangements and finding help in the past.
 
This time we were not the ones with the responsibility to make sure a traditional funeral came together the way it was supposed to. My nieces had this responsibility and it was the first time they ever had to do this.
 
With the funeral in January in Minnesota, it was bitterly cold the day of the wake. Two of our respected elders had already gone out to mark off the grave site and it was outlined in footprints in the snow. My son Jacob and my brother Brandon and I went to the cemetery the afternoon before the funeral to see if we needed to build a fire to get through the frost as the grave had to be prepared by hand by the family.
 
We had picks and shovels and we decided to see how thick the frost was. We took turns swinging a pick and were finally able to break through the frost about eight inches down. We didn’t know we weren’t supposed to start digging until the day of the funeral. We had to stop and start again the next morning.
 
Brandon and I stayed with my nieces at the wake with our sister.
 
We started digging again when the sun came up and the ground had refrozen deeper than it was originally. Every swing of the pick yielded only a cupful or so of frozen ground. Once we got through that, the ground turned to thick clay and the digging wasn’t any easier.
 
Our brother Kelly showed up and stayed at the graveside. He had a stroke a few years back and can’t use his left arm, but his presence was welcome. Two cousins that I hadn’t seen in several years showed up and took turns with the pick and the shovel and Brandon’s son Brian came to help.
 
I’ve drifted apart from my brothers and sisters and my cousins over the years. We used to all ride in the same car when we were kids. My uncle Punkin, my aunt Beverly, my mother, my three sisters, three brothers and my two cousins and I would all be packed into a dark blue 1966 Mercury, riding dirt roads and going to play in rivers or to dig through the dump. We didn’t even know we were poor, we only knew we were together.
 
Now we were digging my sister’s grave. Where does the time go?
 
Swinging a pick is hard work and there is only room for one person at a time in the grave. Everyone else stands on the top and tells stories and jokes and watches the one swinging the pick and digging with the shovel.
 
Respect is not given, but earned.
 
We learned again to respect each other. Brian and Jacob as the younger generation have more energy and more strength, but they also were able to be part of the stories and the jokes and they earned their place with the rest of us.
 
The funeral was at 10:00 AM and as it was starting we still had about two feet deeper to go. We were told to return to the ceremonial hall so the funeral could start and as we were desperately trying to dig just a little bit deeper one of the men from the community told us he would stay and dig.
 
We thanked him and left for the ceremony.
 
The community was at the ceremonial hall, the elder who was doing the ceremony with his helpers was there, people had brought food for the feast and the ceremony was done in Ojibwe the way it has always been done.
 
During the ceremony, eight more men from the community showed up and finished digging the grave.
 
Jacob and my nephew Brian never rode in that old Mercury with us, but they showed us their strength and they were able to see ours. My sister was a year older than me and I am now the elder in our family. No one doubted that at the graveside and it didn’t need to be said.
 
There is no possible way we could have done this as a family without the help of the community. I hugged one of the elders as we were finally leaving to go home and told her we would never have been able to do this without her and everyone else and she told me:
 
 “One day my family will need your help for me and I know you will be there when that time comes.”
 
We will be there, Brenda.
 
These are our stories.
 
Another generation will learn by watching and helping and we will continue to share our gifts and to find our reasons for being here.
 
This is why I write.
 
 
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and he 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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