The Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial

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

The morning dawned bright and sunny on a beautiful day. We had picked up some blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and other foods that were as close as we could find to our traditional foods when we were in downtown Luxembourg the day before.

Ivy had emailed Joy back and forth several times and she was waiting for us at the cemetery. As far as Ivy and Jacob knew, we were going to make an offering of food and tobacco and Ivy was going to touch her great uncle Johnny’s grave marker for her grandmother.  5076 white marble crosses and white marble Stars of David were laid out in perfect arching rows that went over a hill and into the distance. A great forest surrounded the perfect cemetery lawns and the sky was a brilliant blue. We followed Joy through the grave markers to the far end.

We got there and Ivy sat on the grass in front of Johnny’s grave marker. Joy and Jacob and I stood silently as Ivy slowly ran her fingers over the carved inscription and as her hand followed the outline of the cross. Through three generations she was finally doing what her grandmother had wanted to do all these years. Ivy didn’t know when she was growing up as a little girl and spending time with her grandmother that her grandmother was putting her love for her brother into Ivy. Exchanging Christmas presents, family meals, telling stories…all meant for this moment.

We asked Joy if we could give a food offering at the grave and she said this would be fine and she was going to leave and give us our privacy. We asked her to stay as a representative of our country as she is originally from Montana and by law all of the workers at any of the overseas cemeteries have to be American.

I opened the bag and took out my asemaa. Ivy and Jacob and Joy each took some and we offered it to all four directions and I thanked the creator in Ojibwe for giving us this day. We put some asemaa with the food and we each ate some of the berries and put the rest at the base of the grave marker. In Ojibwe I thanked our ancestors and the spirits who watch over us and protect us and invited them to share in the food we brought.

I took out the pipe I was given and fitted the stem to the bowl. When I had it blessed, Lee told me the living trees and the ancient stone come together to help our people when the pipe is assembled and his words were in my thoughts. I took a small pinch of asemaa and held it high and spoke the words Lee had taught me. In Ojibwe I thanked the Creator and put the asemaa into the bowl. I took another pinch of asemaa, held it high and thanked the spirits that help the Creator and put that into the bowl. Again for the spirits in the East, the South, the West and the North. Asemaa for the spirits in my homeland, the spirits in the forests and the lakes. The big animals. The little animals. The birds, the trees, the spirits who once lived among us, the sun, the moon and any other spirits I may have forgotten.

I held a pinch of asemaa high in the air for Sgt. John Mercer and thanked him for his sacrifice and put it in the bowl.

I had found the names of every crew member who died on that plane with him and I held asemaa up in their names and thanked them individually. I offered asemaa for all of our veterans and Ogichidaa and named as many as we could think of. The list was long.

“Odaapinik nidasemaam.” Accept this tobacco.

“Zhawenimishig.” Have compassion for me.

I lit the bowl and smoked the pipe for the very first time. The asemaa burned brightly and I inhaled the smoke deep inside me, held it for a moment and as I breathed it out the wind accepted it and took it gently into the sky.

When I finished, I set the pipe at the base of the grave marker.

I pulled the hand drum from the bag and this was the first time Ivy and Jacob had seen it painted. The medicine wheel and the caduceus blended together perfectly and the red, white, yellow and black were a stark contrast against the buffalo hide of the drum. The birds were the only witnesses to our presence and their songs could be heard throughout the cemetery. The words to the soldier song our people have carried for generations came easily as I sang in front of Ivy and Jacob for the first time and I sang loudly for our warriors. Joy was crying as the last echoes of the song carried over the hill and among the graves.

I pulled out my phone and held it above the grave marker. At age 93, Major Joseph Gomer is one of the greatest living Americans and he was a Tuskegee Airman and a Red Tail fighter pilot in World War II. As a black man, he was mistreated and held back, but was to be one of the best pilots ever and went on to save countless lives. I had sought him out and told him about our trip and asked if he would speak to John. Ivy and Jacob didn’t know who was about to speak as I hit the play button on the recorder:

“John, this is Joe Gomer, Major, United States Air Force, retired. I was a Red Tail pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen in 1944 and I escorted B-24s and B-25s. I want to thank you for your service. You served not just yourself, but all of mankind and we all thank you.”

This was a powerful moment and all of us were silent. The only sounds were the birds and the sound of a helicopter in the distance.

Ivy was crying as I hit the play button again. Her grandmother’s voice came through clearly:

“Hi, Johnny. This is your sister Teresa. I sure missed you and I didn’t know they ever found you and through the years I always thought you might walk through my door. I’m an old lady now and I’ve really missed you. I’m 87 and you would have been about 89 and I might see you soon.

I’ve got a wonderful granddaughter and she found you and showed me a picture of your grave and I… (she started crying at this point)…can’t expect you to walk through the door.
Gosh sakes, it’s been a long life I’ve had and you would have, too. All my brothers except one are with you now. My granddaughter and her family are coming to visit you and I’ll be standing there with them.

I love you very much and I’ll be seeing you one of these days. Your sis. Sister Terese.”

I turned off my phone and put it back in its case. No one said anything for a few minutes and we simply listened to the birds and the sounds of the forest. A gentle breeze whispered through the treetops.

Joy was the first to speak. She spoke quietly. “My ancestry is Blackfeet. The last time I heard a drum was ten years ago when I went home to Montana to bury my grandmother. Thank you.”

And we were done. We left Ivy at the grave to spend time with Johnny and Jacob and I went to look at the monuments.

Jacob turned 15 on this trip. Ivy brought her grandmother’s love to her great uncle Johnny. I sang an ancient song and will find one of our elders to teach me a birthing song to welcome babies into this sometimes difficult world.  This may well be the single most important thing we have done as a family.

The return flight was long and the sunrise over the ocean was spectacular.

We were coming home.

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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