Believe that what you have to say is important

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

I’ve been writing this column for a few years and sometimes I get emails in response to them. These can be from someone in a similar situation or someone who cares about someone in a similar situation. The lessons I see in my work resonate with people and often have a profound and life altering effect. As I travel and speak and show Walking Into The Unknown at conferences and gatherings, people come to me and tell me similar stories and sometimes I can tell this is the first time they have ever talked to anyone about it.

Suicides, strokes, and the heartaches that come with poverty…all of these are issues prevalent in Indian Country. I had a phone call from a man who had been sitting in a trailer house a few days earlier with a gun in his mouth. He’d lost everything and saw shooting himself as his only way out. He was absently flipping through the TV channels as he gathered his nerve and he found Walking Into The Unknown and watched it all the way through. He decided not to go through with it after watching the segment on my father’s suicide and he called and left a message for me at the clinic. I called him back and we talked through my lunch hour. All the same issues were still there and he knew he had a lot of hard decisions and conversations ahead of him, but he realized what his death would do to his family for eternity and he didn’t want to doom them to that.

I tell crazy stories on Facebook and trying to condense what I need to say into a post short enough for my phone to upload makes me choose my words carefully. Everyday events like accidentally buffing my fingernails to a mirror-like sheen when I was messing with my sister’s manicure kit or feeding the chickadees or working on the farm are all worth writing about. Ivy’s 80 year-old dad and I raise grass fed beef for our family and the smell of the earth being turned over as he plowed the hayfield with his 1948 Farmall tractor for the first time in decades or watching the manure spreader slowly cover a snowy field speak to a time that is long past for most of us. I want everyone to know and to feel what it’s like to try to fix something under the threat of a storm that can destroy the day’s work or even an entire crop. I want everyone to watch the sky with me and feel the itching of the hay chaff as we load the bales on the wagon and unload them in the sweltering heat of the barn.

I have seen the entire world reflected in a single drop of water hanging from a balsam branch after a spring rain. The water molecules in that drop have been around since the earth was new and those molecules don’t come apart, they get recycled again and again. They have been water vapor at times, have been part of the ocean at other times, have been in dark clouds heading across the country and have been part of the storms that have ravaged and shaped the earth. Those water molecules have been part of ancient Egypt and part of North America long before recorded history and were part of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. Humans are mostly water and those molecules have been part of our greatest leaders and our greatest tyrants.

Those water molecules get desecrated by oil spills and by pollution spewing into the air from our cars and our planes and our factories. Those water molecules are part of every newborn baby and are in our elders as they breathe their last. They rise to rejoin the clouds and will travel and fall somewhere far away. Maybe they will return to the ocean for centuries to come or they will rain down on a hayfield on a Minnesota summer day.

Maybe they will be part of the steady cold drizzle that lands on a trailer house in Montana on a gloomy overcast day when all hope seems lost.

I was in the grocery store last night and an old man in his upper eighties recognized me. He has seen Walking Into The Unknown every time it’s been on public television and he wanted me to know I made a difference to him and I made him think about his place in the world and what he has to pass on. He asked if and hoped I had another film in the works. We actually did shoot some film footage a couple of years ago that would make another equally powerful film, but everyone from the first film has other obligations and I’m not even certain where all that footage is anymore.

Ojibwe author Jim Northrup took me aside at his seventieth birthday party a couple of years ago and told me it was time for me to write a book. He told me when he was starting out as a writer; the well-known poet and author Simon Ortiz pulled him aside:

“This is what he told me and I’m passing this on to you. ‘Believe that what you have to say is important. The spelling, commas and punctuation will take care of themselves.’”

“It’s time for you to get serious about writing.”

Jim is a good friend of mine and writing is his life. I know deep in my heart he was looking to pass that torch one and one time only and I don’t take it lightly. Last year an editor for a publishing company contacted me. We met in a basement coffee shop and we sat in the corner and talked as the footsteps clacked and shuffled by on the foggy night sidewalk above us. As a rule, when someone starts out with a book they typically submit it again and again to multiple publishers and the stories of rejection letters abound.

This was a different kind of meeting. Over that cup of coffee we became friends and I came to trust her judgment.

“When are you going to write a book? I’m telling you right now, if you write it, we will publish it. You have so much to teach and you have a perspective few others have.”

I think it’s time.

I have given myself forty-five weeks to write what I need to write. This means I will be up early on weekends and late at night. The stories come unbidden to me as families and individuals, as triumphs and tragedies. They come as new life and they come at the end and they come at that unpredictable part known as the middle, where most of us live. They come from my memories and from those of my grandparents and they come out of the tears and the laughter and the bonding that come with the bad luck of being born into poverty.

I watch our children grow and I ask them what they are going to be. One day I hope to be able to pull one of them aside and deliver the message Jim Northrup delivered to me:
“Believe that what you have to say is important. The spelling, commas and punctuation will take care of themselves.”

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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