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

One of our teachers, James Vukelich, posts the Ojibwe Word of the Day on Facebook every Thursday and I try to never miss it. These are beautiful lessons in what the words in our language mean, where those words came from and how our ancestors could see the best place to put some of our most important lessons so they wouldn’t be lost is in the language itself.

Gwayakwaadiziwin means honesty, but it means much more than that. It means to live a life so others can see your honesty and integrity and virtue. It means following through with what you say you will do.

The next day I was off work and I was thinking about living my life in that way and I didn’t take the first drink of my coffee. Instead, I remembered when George Earth was dying and he asked me to pour some of the spring water I collected on the ground at his funeral. Since then I make it a point to spill some of my coffee on the ground in the mornings before I take the first sip and I offer it to George and all of my relatives who have passed on. I offered my asemaa to the four directions and to the spirits in the water and to the earth and to the sky. It felt good to start my day in that way and I had lots of things to do and I silently vowed to do everything with integrity.

I had to go to the bank and the wait was long for some reason. I went to the store and I got into the line right after someone who had a full cart and she cut in front of me, even though she could see I only had three items. I needed to bring the rest of the liquid nitrogen I used for my mad science demonstration back to the welding supply place. I forgot to put it in my car and I had to drive back home to get it. I had to go to the tool supply place because I needed a new chain for my saw and I didn’t have the right part numbers, so I couldn’t pick it up. I ordered an antenna for my wife’s car from the internet and it didn’t pull in any radio stations and I had to go to the post office to send it back and I was third in line.

My hope was to work on one of my old cars and I hadn’t been able to do that for a long time. I finally got back home and realized I drove over 45 miles a couple of days before to pick up an engine stand and I didn’t bring part of it home. I had to drop everything and get into my rusty old truck and try to drive 45 miles again and get there before they closed.

I was trying to hurry and I came to a traffic light that is never green. This was a light that normally takes forever to turn green once it turns red and I was sure I was going to make the light and…

A pickup truck pulled out from a side road right in front of me and I had to slam on the brakes to slow down and I was sure he was going to make me miss that light. I could have let this pass, but instead I laid on the horn and stopped in front of him as he was pulling out from the side road. He stopped and I was able to go around him, but not until I got a good look at him. I was expecting a younger person who would maybe give me the finger or shake a fist at me and I wanted whoever it was to know they didn’t even look before pulling out in front of me and that this could have caused a serious accident. I thought maybe this was a beginning driver who might learn something from such a close call.

What I didn’t expect was an old man who was at least 90 years old. The skin on his face was thin and wrinkly. His eyes were blue and his hair was white and his head had a steady side to side tremor. He was alone in the truck and I could tell he was used to being alone. He didn’t look at me with anger or apology and he didn’t look at me at all. Instead, he threw his hands into the air and I could see him start crying. His hands were in the air in a gesture of giving up, of complete surrender and he slammed on his brakes and I went around him and I made it through the light and I left him behind.

Who else left him behind? His wife? His brothers and sisters? All of his friends from work? He most likely outlived all of them.

His vision and his hearing and reflexes were not what they used to be and I sensed he was isolated and alone and his long life had allowed those things most important to him grow old and die or to simply fade away.

In my hurry, I could see I was the straw that broke the camel’s back for him and I couldn’t stop thinking about him on my 45 mile drive. I thought about him as a young man, strong and with his entire future ahead of him. I thought of him finding love and raising children who inevitably found lives far away and only saw him occasionally and had a hard time talking to him on the phone. I saw a 90 year old man holding on to the last of his independence.

I saw the fragility of that independence and no doubt he had been seeing signs of it for a long time. Now his hearing and vision loss almost caused an accident and he would be too well aware he was the cause of it.

I picked up the rest of the engine stand with about five minutes to spare before they closed. I noticed my own strength as I picked up the steel frame and lifted it over the side of the truck and thought about what it would mean to have that strength taken away from me.

On the way home there was a rock outcropping on the top of a hill. I stopped my truck on the side of the road and I climbed until I was overlooking a small valley. I put my asemaa out for that old man. I had never seen him before and had no reason to think I would ever see him again. He would never know I climbed this hill for him and maybe he wouldn’t even see it as important.

I saw it as important. A light breeze picked up and it took my asemaa and it carried it out over the valley. I asked forgiveness from those who had gone on before me. I asked forgiveness from the old man.

On the first day of my new way of life, gwayakwaadiziwin, I didn’t live up to the lessons our old ones put into our language. My brief moment of anger had a lasting effect on someone else.

A moment of kindness would have lasted forever.

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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