Health | Opinion

Arne Vainio: Learning to dance to bring healing for our people

Arne Vainio and a young friend, Richard, dance at the Cha Cha Bah Ning 35th Annual Traditional Pow Wow, hosted by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, from August 28-30, 2015. Photo courtesy Arne Vainio

At the end of August I danced for the first time.

George Earth has wanted me to dance ever since he came back in to our lives in the past ten years or so. He introduced my mother and father in 1957 when my father owned the ill-fated Good Luck Tavern in Sturgeon, Minnesota.

Business was booming, but he wasn’t a good businessman and would go on to complete suicide there when I was just a few months shy of my fifth birthday. My mother was left with my older sister and me and my two younger brothers. She was drinking sometime shortly after the suicide and left my sister in charge. She was six or seven at the time and it wasn’t long before we started playing with matches and burned our house to the ground.

George was in his twenties at that time and we lost track of him when his mother was hit by a car and killed as she was walking home one night. His life changed when hers ended and he was lost to us after that.

George thought about us often over the decades and my wife, Ivy, spotted him at a powwow and we’ve been family again ever since.

George is a traditional dancer and his regalia has come to him piece by piece over the years. He has always said dancing is what saved him from a downward spiral that started when his mother died. When he dances, every step is a prayer for the healing of all Indian people from all tribes and we have spent late nights with him telling me the things I need to know.

He lives several hours away and we stay in touch by phone when we can’t see each other. I call him when I have my feet in the ocean or when I’m listening to the night and when the fireflies first come out and fly through the trees with only me outside. We put our asemaa (sacred tobacco) out together at those times.

George and I traveled to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming last October so I could speak at a healthy heart conference and they asked George to do the opening prayer. We spent four days in the car together and we drove through the Black Hills and went to Chief Crazy Horse Monument and we stood under the vastness of the Milky Way under the endless night sky somewhere in Wyoming.

I never turned the radio on once during that trip and George told me stories and told me why the important things are important. He was supposed to travel with me to the Association of American Indian Physicians conference on the Tulalip Reservation north of Seattle right after his 80th birthday in July, but it didn’t work out.

I’ve been feeling a sense of urgency about getting those of us who need to go into medicine aimed in the right direction and I think I’ve let some time pass when I could have done more.

George is also feeling that urgency. He’s been having a hard time breathing and he can’t make it around the dance arena any more. At the end of August, he passed his dance regalia to me at the Cha-cha-ba-ning traditional powwow in Inger, Minnesota. It was bittersweet watching him take each piece separately from his van and he held each piece reverently and for a long time before handing it to me.

I wasn’t even certain how to put all of it on and the bells fell off my ankles during grand entry and the leggings below my knees fell off a couple of dances after that. I had people come and dance with me to welcome me and I appreciate that more than they will ever know.

Naakiiyaa Kitto-daronco made the beaded medallion I wore and this was a gift from her and totally out of the blue. I still take it out and marvel at the intricacy of the work she does. Herb and Patty Sam and Arianna have taken me in as part of their family and Herb has been teaching me our old songs. He had a hand drum made for me when he read my column in News From Indian Country -- "It’s the only thing I have left for you” -- about a dying veteran who taught me a powerful lesson. I still have much to learn. I don’t feel I’m ready to sing, but I sing when I feel I need to.

George has always told me seeing a doctor dancing would be healing for everyone and I discovered that meant me as much as anyone else.

Richard is a young grass dancer and he has worked hard to be in the arena. We bonded right away and we danced side by side. He dances every dance and he clearly feels the drumbeat somewhere deep inside. George watched us dancing and he slowly crossed the grassy circle between songs and sat at one of the drums.

I danced next to Richard as George sang and I could see him with the other singers and I knew he was singing for his regalia and he was singing for his mother. He was singing for all the past times he had been in the arena and he was singing the prayers he used to dance. He was singing for Richard and he was singing for me and I tried to listen for his voice as we made our way around the circle.

But it blended in with the voices of the other singers and it blended in with a slight breeze that blew through the trees and across the arena. It blended in with the sound of Richard and I laughing as we showed each other our dance moves.

I will learn to dance for healing for our people and I will learn to dance for our dying veterans, the veterans here now and for the veterans yet to come. I will dance for those contemplating suicide and those left behind and for all the hurt and all the beauty out there.

I will learn the old songs Herb is teaching me and when I sing them, George’s voice will be a part of mine.

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

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