Mashkikiwinini: My college Grade Point Average of 0.00

by Dr. Arne Vainio
News From Indian Country

My mother was traditional Ojibwe and raised 7 kids by herself. She tried to make sure we understood the reasons she did certain things and to have respect for elders and nature.

I wish I would have listened to her more than I did. Poverty and alcohol were a large part of my upbringing.

My grandfather was taken from his family and put into a boarding school when he was young. Because of the way he was treated, he tried to prevent my mother from learning traditional ways as he thought it would hurt her. She ran away from home at age 15 because of that. We’ve lost much because of this.

I went to high school in northern Minnesota and had very good friends there, but always had to endure racism as I grew up. My high school counselor actually told me I was not college material and was best suited for manual labor.

Fortunately, Leonard Ojala (Thank you!) took over as a counselor and brought me to the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) to see the college. I mostly enrolled there because they had indoor plumbing and steady heat in the winter. I signed up for the hardest courses I could (calculus, chemistry, physics) so I could show everyone at home how smart I was.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take any preparatory classes in high school and was put on academic probation within 2 quarters of college. My GPA (grade point average) at that point was 0.00. I didn’t pass a single class and dropped out.

I went to work and held multiple jobs. I was a bartender for years, worked in a sawmill, worked in a body shop painting cars, was a heavy equipment operator and a foreman for a construction company. Someone I really liked died with witnesses present because no one knew how to do CPR.

Subsequently, I took a first responder course and eventually became a firefighter and then a paramedic in Virginia, Minnesota. I loved the Fire Department and working with dedicated professionals. I loved fighting fires. Mostly, I liked being in the ambulance.

Paramedics, EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and first responders save lives and make a difference. I owe much of who I am to the Virginia Fire Department. Mark Gujer (my paramedic instructor) and I left the Fire Department together to go to medical school.

Mark is still one of the best teachers I have ever had and is now an anesthesiologist in Crosby, Minnesota.

At age 30, I went on to finish college at UMD. Mark and I did very well and were the top students in ALL of our classes.

Conrad Firling, Ph.D. was my advisor at UMD and was the driving force getting me into the UMD School of Medicine. Thanks, Dr. Firling! The UMD School of Medicine is a great medical school and I will always be proud I went there. Any of my good qualities as a doctor are from there; my shortcomings are mine and mine alone.

I did my 3 year family practice residency at the Seattle Indian Health Board in Seattle, Washington. Seattle is a huge city with lots of underserved (homeless, impoverished) people. I saw great things and tragic stories there.

I have wanted to work in Indian health care since I first started in medicine. I’ve been working at the Min No Aya Win (Ojibwemowin for “together we are well”) clinic in Cloquet, Minnesota, since September 1997.

As an Ojibwe physician, this is EXACTLY where I wanted to be. I also see my patients in 4 area hospitals. I am continually amazed at the education and dedication of the people I work with. This includes ALL health care providers, not just doctors.

Ifeel this background information is important because I had a hard time getting to be a physician. Many others have helped me.

The stumbling blocks I had are the same ones our people face now. Traditional Native philosophy is to share our blessings. Mine is my medical knowledge. I welcome students to spend time with me and want very much for them to pursue professional careers.

I want our people to understand what medicine can do for them. I want them to understand that much of their health care is their own responsibility. I want our children and grandchildren to go on to professional careers and lead us forward. I want us to be healthy in mind, body and spirit. I want us to do this together.

Over a month ago, I started writing articles for Native newspapers. The feedback I’ve gotten so far has been positive and I hope to keep writing. My goal overall is to try to address issues in Native health in a format that’s understandable and easy to read. I am not a writer and expect to learnas I go, but I have many issues I feel I need to address.

Arne Vainio, M.D. is a Family Practice Physician at the Min-No-Aya-Win Human Services Clinic on the Fond du Lac Ojibwe Reservation in Northern Minnesota. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..