In the Spirit of Medicine: life takes some interesting turns

Oct 28, 2019

Credit Anne Nygård/Unsplash

    Some of you will be coming back home to our people. Some of you will never come back. Those
who stay need to make sure they teach those who come back to us. You need to leave prison life in
prison. Do not bring the way of life that got you into prison back home to our children. 

We are
depending on you and trust you fully to do this. We NEED you to do this for us.

In the Spirit of Medicine features the essays of Dr. Arne Vainio, an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a family practice doctor on the Fond Du Lac reservation in Cloquet. His essays on life, work, medicine, and spirit are published on Indianz.com and you can find the transcript of this story below.

Life takes some interesting turns

By Arne Vainio, M.D.

Last year I showed a segment from Walking into the Unknown to a prison system as part of a
cultural awareness exercise for them. This was not for the inmates, but for the staff at the prison.
What I had to say was well received, but it started me thinking about our prison inmates. Native
Americans are a disproportionately higher percentage of the prison population than the
percentage in the general population.

Are we somehow worse as a people? Of course not. I don't want to make excuses, but generations
of displacement, termination policies, broken treaties, poverty and oppression have had effects.
Being displaced to reservations brought an end to a life tied to the changing seasons and an end to
many of our ceremonies. We had an entire generation taken away from their parents and placed in
boarding schools.

Those children lost the opportunity to learn how to be parents in the traditional ways. Gone are the
ceremonies for rites of passage. When do boys become men? When do girls become women?
These used to be ceremonies with defined outcomes. The life of drugs and gangs seems glamorous
to many of our children. WE need to be doing their initiations into the next phase of their lives.

I was lost when I was 12 years old and would have followed my uncle Lloyd into hell if he was going
there. How many lost kids do we have now? How many prisoners do we have because they were in
the wrong place at the wrong time? Again, I am not making excuses, Im sure there are plenty of
genuinely bad people in prison. I have gotten letters from prisoners before, but most were asking
me for narcotics for pain or to somehow intervene in their sentence. These are things I could not
help them with.

But a few weeks ago, I got a letter from a prison in Maryland.

Boozhoo, Dr. Vainio. I returned from Vietnam in 1974. In 1981 I was sentenced to life plus 25 years
in prison and I've been here ever since. I understand your wife, Ivy, produced a documentary called
Walking into the Unknown in 2009. I would like to get a copy for our Native Mens group here. I am
also interested in any books and newspaper articles, traditional language courses, or anything else
you can send me. As I only make $17.00 a month, I have no way of paying for these items.

He also enclosed 2 duck feathers and a snow goose feather in a separate envelope.

Ivy and I took this very seriously. We went into the woods and offered asemaa so we could gather
the red willow she needed to make dream catcher hoops and for me to make kinnickinnick. Ivy
made the dream catcher and carefully put one of the duck feathers into the web. I spent the
evening slowly peeling the outer bark of the red willow so I could scrape the white inner bark for
the kinnickinnick.

Credit ©Ivy Vainio. Used with permission.

I signed a DVD of Walking into the Unknown to the prisoners and wrote this on the cover in
permanent marker:

Robert has asked me for a copy of this film for the Native Men's group. I give this willingly.

Why? Because you matter.

Some of you will be coming back home to our people. Some of you will never come back. Those
who stay need to make sure they teach those who come back to us. You need to leave prison life in
prison. Do not bring the way of life that got you into prison back home to our children. We are
depending on you and trust you fully to do this. We NEED you to do this for us.

We also included a copy of Jim Northrup's book, Walking the Rez Road, that he had autographed to
us. We put all the native newspapers we could find into the box. We get newspapers from the
reservations that run my articles and sent as many of these as we could find.

Several weeks later a second letter came to us. It was nine pages long.

Boozhoo! I received the video, books and newspapersbut the most wonderful gift of all was the
dream catchermiigwech a thousand times over. This is the first dream catcher I have ever had.

He loved the story about my dog Kevin and my story about Agnes made him cry. Jim Northrup's
book and his poetry connected to him on a jarhead level. He also really liked Ricey Wilds column
and was hoping I could let her know that.

And he sent paintings. Beautiful paintings first penciled in, then inked in for detail, then painted
with acrylic paint. His canvas is sections cut from sheets. A turtle painting for Ivy, a wolf painting
for me (and my dog, Kevin) and a Vietnam Veteran painting for Jim Northrup. And he sent an eagle
painting for Ricey Wild. I can see into his heart and soul in every one of his paintings.

I was taught that when you ask someone for something you make an offering, and what better
offering than the few cherished feathers I've managed to scavenge these last 31 years in prison?
They were all I had to offer. Miigwech for your letter and all the gifts.

Why should I care about someone who's in prison for life? Because he does matter. We need every
single one of us to keep our traditions alive. Rehabilitation comes in two forms. It can be done from
the outside or it can be done from the inside. Only when it comes from the inside can it truly last.

And me? I think my path is going to include prisons. I have a feeling I'm destined to travel to
Maryland some day. You and I will meet face to face, Robert. I believe your rehabilitation does come
from the inside. We will shake hands and bridge the gap between us.

Why? Because you matter.

Miigwech for your letter and all the gifts.