Going to Luxembourg to honor our warriors

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

We just got back from the Grand Portage powwow and we go there every year. Ivy’s ancestry is from Grand Portage and the past 3 years have been especially important as her family has been honoring John Mercer during the flag raising ceremony.

John was Ivy’s great uncle and she never met him. He enlisted in the service when he was seventeen and his mother had to sign for him to join as he was so young. He was killed in action in Germany in 1944, but not much else was known. Ivy found his grave in the Luxembourg American Cemetery when she was researching family history after our now 15 year-old son Jake was born. No one in the family has ever been to his grave and we have wanted to go there to honor him ever since she found him. We were finally able to go a few weeks ago.

Ivy’s grandmother Theresa is 87 years old and she and Ivy have talked about Johnny over the years. We wanted to go while she was still with us so Ivy could touch Johnny’s gravestone for her. We were planning on putting some asemaa (tobacco) down in the cemetery to thank him for his service. We didn’t have much in the way of plans beyond that.

Some other things have happened over the past few months that changed our plans somewhat, but I didn’t let Ivy or Jake know about them as I sometimes like to operate under the element of surprise. We were at the Powwow for Hope in Minneapolis this spring and as soon as we walked in a man came up and asked, “Are you Doctor Vainio?”

Rick Belgarde is from the Turtle Mountain reservation and he told us he reads everything I write. He was genuinely excited to meet us and wanted pictures of us together. I felt like a celebrity and it was good to get that feedback and I entered the rest of the powwow with that on my mind. There was a silent auction and one of the items was a beautifully made hand drum. I kept bidding on it and coming back to it and finally won it in the last few moments of the auction. I have never sung and I have never really played a drum before.

I was walking through the crowd with the drum and Rick came up to me and told me he made the drum and donated it to the auction. He was honored that I won it and he signed it on the back. I think he would have made me one for free if I asked him to.

I think I would have paid double.

Shortly after that I was asked to be the Sunday guest speaker at the Spiritualist Church in Duluth. They do not adhere to any particular religion and like to hear from all religions. I do not consider myself to be an authority on Ojibwe spirituality, so I talked about my upbringing and my journey to becoming a physician. I talked about my mother and her teachings as I was growing up. Jake played the piano as I read one of my stories and this really made the story much more powerful.

At the end of the service we were brought to the back of the church and the entire congregation came by to shake our hands and wish us well. Dan Conley is an artist and a sculptor and he was one of the last in line. He handed me a fringed buckskin bag tied with a leather cord and said, “I made this for you.”

I unwound the cord and pulled out the stem of a pipe carved into a graceful spiral. I reached deeper into the bag and inside was a beautiful pipestone pipe carved as a turtle. My mother collected turtles and I couldn’t believe someone could give a gift like this. I still can’t believe it.

He later contacted me and gave me several other gifts. One of them was another pipe with four medicine wheels carved into it.

I have never had a pipe like this before and I was not seeking it. I didn’t really know what I needed to do and I went to see one of our most respected elders. He does the funerals for our people and I knew he would be able to help me. I brought him asemaa and three other gifts as I was taught by my mother and I asked him to help me with the pipes. I showed him the hand drum and told him about our upcoming trip to Luxembourg to honor Ivy’s Uncle Johnny and all of our veterans. I was looking for a song to honor him and I was hoping to find an old traditional song.

It took three visits and he lives about 75 miles away. I was happy to make the journey and over the course of the visits he spoke for the pipes and we feasted them. He told me what I needed to do with them and he had a recording of a soldier song from the man who raised him. This is a very old song and it was hard to hear on the recording. I could hear the audible click of the old cassette recorder and the old man’s uncertainty about when to start speaking, then singing. The Elder’s helper sang it into my phone so I could listen to it and learn it. It seemed to me I listened to it hundreds of times over the next few weeks and I never seemed to get it right when I was singing it back in the car and I could never seem to get the drumbeat to go with the song.

I was instructed to take the drum to a ceremony with someone else and I was able to do that the next weekend. We had the drum on a staff outside the sweat lodge and Wesley spoke for it during the ceremony.

Moira Villiard is a young artist and she will be one of our best known artists one day. I told her what I was planning and she painted the drum with a medicine wheel and caduceus (snake and staff symbol of medicine) blended together. She intuitively knew exactly what I wanted and she kept her vow of secrecy.

Going to Luxembourg is not something many families would be able to do and I wanted to do this in as respectful a manner as I could and I wanted this to be something Ivy would always remember and could bring back to her grandmother.

Remember those old serial stories that drove you crazy because they ended and you had to wait until the next installment?

This is one of those.

Next month: The Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial.

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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