The words came back to haunt me, but today I am grateful

By Arne Vainio, M.D
News From Indian Country 9-08

My Ojibwe grandmother was dying. Years of alcohol had done irreparable damage to her liver, and now her kidneys were failing. She slept restlessly off and on, but didn’t seem to be in any pain. She looked small in the stark white hospital bed. My grandfather was there and my mother was there with her. I felt uncomfortable visiting with her as she had never really been very nice to me and had never missed an opportunity to tell me that I was useless.

Still, I wanted her approval. Just days earlier I had decided to quit my job at the Virginia Fire Department and go back to college to chase a new dream of becoming a doctor. I loved being a firefighter and a paramedic. It was the best job any one in my family had ever had and the decision to leave it didn’t come easy. I hadn’t told any of my family about this; I told my mother and grandfather about it at my grandmother’s bedside. My grandfather didn’t say anything. My mother knew this meant I wouldn’t be able to help her make house payments anymore, but she told me she was proud of me and that we would find a way to make ends meet.

I bent over my sleeping grandmother and spoke directly into her ear. “Grandma, I’m going to quit my job and finish college. I want to be a doctor and I’m going to apply to medical school.” She was quiet for a long time, I wasn’t sure she heard me. My mother and grandfather were silent. Finally, she opened her eyes, looked at me and motioned me to come closer. I leaned over her to hear what she had to say. She took a slow breath and said, “You act like you’re white.”

In spite of the way she had always treated me, this really hurt and took me completely by surprise. That was over 20 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday. This sentence came back to haunt me many times during medical school and residency. Of all the things that would have stopped me from finishing medical school, this was the biggest one.

My grandparents on my father’s side immigrated from Finland in 1902 and 1908. I remember being a little kid and being in my grandparent’s house. My grandma Vainio had a wood cookstove going every day of the year and she was always baking bread. I can close my eyes and I can smell her bread baking and see her kitchen. She had a huge garden and she was always out picking berries and canning them for winter. We were her only grandchildren, she loved us all and she was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known. They spoke primarily Finnish and so did most of their company. With my father’s suicide when I was 4 and my Finnish grandparents dying when I was young, I lost my connection to my Finnish side.

Being Indian isn’t easy for a kid. Being not fully Indian is even worse. I wasn’t Finnish, and I wasn’t Indian. Half breed. Finndian. Every time I had to change schools or jobs, this would be an unspoken issue. Sometimes it actually was spoken, those interactions hardly ever went well.

I first started college at UMD in 1976, just out of high school. This was the first time I was around Indian people who really had an interest in me as a student and making sure that I did OK. With my mother being traditional Ojibwe, most of my Finnish heritage took a back seat and I really didn’t think about it that much. By the time I applied to medical school, I applied as an Ojibwe student. I grew my hair long during medical school, and proudly wore my hair long through my residency at the Seattle Indian Health Board. I have identified myself as a Native American physician right from the start, and I’m proud of that fact.

It wasn’t me who awakened my Finnish side. My wife, Ivy, took an interest in genealogy after our son was born. She traced my Ojibwe heritage back to boarding school times, but she also traced my Finnish side back to the 1700s. But there was no way for us to contact anyone in Finland and the records went into a filing cabinet.

This summer, Finnfest 2008 was in Duluth, Minnesota, with over ten thousand people attending. There is a strong Finnish/Ojibwe connection as many of the early Finnish immigrants married Ojibwe people; their values were surprisingly similar. Ivy was on the opening ceremonies committee and worked hard to make sure the Ojibwe portion was done properly and respectfully. At the opening ceremonies, Fond du Lac Tribal Chair Karen Diver spoke of embracing both sides of your heritage and being a whole person. I’ve never heard anyone say that so well. I was a speaker on 2 different panels as a Finnish/Ojibwe professional. I had several people come up to me and tell me they knew my father and that he would have been proud of me.

My grandfather Vainio was born in Jaala, Finland, in 1878, and the rest of his family was born in Iitti, Finland. Journalist Silja Talvi was raised in Finland and her family still has a cabin in Iitti. We went to her talk and met her afterward. Ivy made a dream catcher and knew there was someone there who was meant to have it. It turned out to be Silja. Immediately there was a strong connection between us and we’ve been emailing each other ever since. Silja is going to try to help us find our family in Iitti. Kiitos Paljon (thank you so much), Silja!

I was quoted in an article in a newspaper in Helsinki, Finland, which was read by Finnish journalist Rauli Virtanen. Rauli has won the 2 highest journalism awards in Finland and has been a foreign correspondent the world over. He has covered multiple wars and conflicts since the Vietnam War and is highly regarded by his peers and the Finnish public. He called me and flew to Minnesota to explore the Finnish/Ojibwe connection for Finnish television. We spent 2 days together; he was constantly filming and looking for historical records and photographs. This started as an interview, but we parted as friends. Rauli has also told us he will help us find our family in Finland. Kiitos Paljon, Rauli!

I missed shaking hands with the President of Finland when she was at Finnfest 2008, but I met two people who are even more important to me. I’m proud to be an Ojibwe physician. But maybe my Ojibwe grandmother was right. Maybe I do act like I’m white. That’s my Finnish side. I’m glad it’s there.

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..