Like most of us: Walking into the Unknown

By Arne Vainio
Cloquet, Minnesota (NFIC) 2-09

Miigwech Nimishoomis gakina gegoo gaa-izhichigeyan noongom. Miigwech adizookaanag gaa-ganaweniminingwaa. Miigwech nookomisinaan. “Thank you, grandfather, for everything that you do today. Thank you, spirit helpers who look after us. Thank you, grandmother.”

I said these things as I offered my tobacco.  I was thankful for many things on this day. I was watching the inauguration of our 44th president, Barack Obama.

Who could ever have believed this day would come?

My wife is of African descent on her father’s side and our 10-year-old son held the banner that led the Martin Luther King, Jr., march in Duluth, Minnesota, Jan. 19th. He carried his end of it for the entire march. He has a good heart and we are proud of him. When he was just a few days old, an elder held him and looked into his eyes for a long, long time. “He has a very old spirit." 

In addition, the Fond du Lac Reservation Business Committee (RBC) just gave their enthusiastic approval for us to go ahead with the premier of the Native American health documentary we’ve been working on for the last 2 years. It’s called “Walking into the Unknown.”  It’s been a long process, but it’s finally finished.

This film project started at around the time I first thought of writing these articles. I have a very strong family history of diabetes, heart disease, alcoholism, stroke and suicide.

This is the family history of many of my patients. When I first started working as a physician on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota, in 1997, my wife announced that I was going to go to a doctor for a physical. I protested that I didn’t have time for that and managed to put it off. Once she became pregnant with our son, the pressure increased. Eventually, I did go in for the physical and everything was fine, but my cholesterol was up a little. I was off the hook.

Only a year later, she was after me again to go in for another physical. I protested that I had just gone for one and that everything was fine. I managed to put that one off for almost 3 years and used my busy schedule as my primary excuse. In the years that followed, I have spoken at men’s groups, at the medical school, at events for new parents, for elders groups and multiple other events.  All the while, I was trying to get people to address their own health care and come in for exams.

I was increasingly frustrated with people, mostly men, not wanting to be screened for diabetes, heart disease and cholesterol. Prostate exams and colonoscopies were out of the question for many of them. These are MEN, they do not allow anyone to stick a finger or a scope into their rectum (the actual phrases used were a little more colorful).


I watched several of them die because they wouldn’t get screened. I watched them die from things that could have been prevented or taken care of if they would have come in early enough. I watched several die because I missed getting them screened because we were too busy taking care of other, more acute problems.

I watched some die because they didn’t understand what they needed to do. I watched some die because they were afraid to address their health issues.

Then, in January of 2007, my younger brother Kelly had a stroke. He was only 46 years old at the time. He had uncontrolled diabetes and had always refused to take care of it. He blamed his doctor for not getting it under better control. He smoked. He drank. He bought ten pounds of bacon just a few days before his stroke.

He was always bigger and stronger than me when we were growing up. His constant anger made him a great football player. They called him “Freight Train” in high school because nothing could stop him.

His stroke did. He still can’t move his left arm and he falls easily because his left leg is weak.

Is anyone starting to see me as a hypocrite? You picked up on it faster than I did. I finally had to come to the realization that this wasn’t just me and a motorcycle anymore. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m a doctor taking care of my people. I couldn’t continue to hide from the same things I was seeing others suffer from.

I owed it to my wife and son to make sure they didn’t have to take care of me because of something I could have avoided. I was afraid because of my family history. The film follows my journey through the health screenings all of us need. I was in a unique position to do this as a physician, as a patient and as a middle aged Native American male in denial.

Nate Maydole is a bright and rising filmmaker and our paths crossed early on. Nate immediately saw the impact this film could have and was on board from the start. The Special Diabetes Grant from the Indian Health Service provided enough money to get started.

The physician I chose is a partner of mine. Even though he is not Native, I gave him tobacco, cloth and metal as gifts when I asked him to be my doctor.  We went to a sweat ceremony together to start things properly. Everyone in the film volunteered their time to make sure this has maximum impact and benefit to Native people. It addresses diabetes prevention and the changes needed to live a longer, healthier life. It has stories of loss from others.

It’s a powerful film. Not because of me, but because of what it teaches.  President Obama said we need to be involved in things that are bigger than we are to effect change for our children.  This film is much bigger than the people in it and we will be sending it out free of charge to all 355 American Indian Special Diabetes Programs funded by the Indian Health Service across the country.  We want as many people as possible to see this film and have access to it in their clinics.

The premier screening of “Walking into the Unknown” will be on March 23, 2009, at 7:00 PM in the Marshall Performing Arts Center at the University of Minnesota campus in Duluth, Minnesota. Everyone is invited and we hope to see you there. We will set up other screenings of the film as needed, but this is the big one.

This I learned from our new president:

He can change the future.
I can change the future.
You can change the future.
We can change the future.

Is a future president with one of you right now? I hope so. But we need to be the change that makes it happen.


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..