Arne Vainio: Watch Native Report for first Health Matters segment

Getting ready for the Health Matters segment on Native Report. Photo courtesy Arne Vainio

Health Matters
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

The first episode of Native Report with the segment Health Matters airs February 18 in the Duluth, Minnesota, broadcast area. Please check the local listings for air times for Native Report in your area. I wanted to start with an introduction so I could state what my hopes and goals for the segment would be.

I got to the studio and the segment we were shooting was supposed to take a half hour or so, but somehow it didn’t work out that way. It took the camera crew a bit of time to set up two cameras and then I had to run through what I was going to do as a mad science experiment. My goal was to get people interested in science and to let them know we can be scientists and still hold our traditional beliefs and values.

I was using liquid nitrogen to cool a large copper plate down to 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Normally this takes about a half hour, but with 2 cameramen standing by, it seemed to take forever. There are some very cool phase changes that happen to the copper plate and as it cools it takes on some of the properties of a superconductor.

I won’t say anything further for now as it might ruin the surprise at the end of the experiment.

Last week I went back in to the studio at WDSE Television to shoot the next three segments. The first one is an overview of what it means to be healthy, the second is on diabetes and the third segment is about cancer. I started out standing in front of a green screen like the meteorologist and it was strange looking at the monitor and seeing the logo for Health Matters behind me when there was actually nothing there.

I wanted to represent the clinic and I had my Min-No-Aya-Win shirt on. It has a floral design above the pocket and part of that is bright green. That turned into a hole in my shirt on the monitor and they had to put a digital green square behind me where that was. I kept walking away from the green square and the hole would come back and finally the only way to make it work was for me to sit on a chair so I would stay in one place.

Producer / writer Michael LeGarde and host / co-producer Stacey Thunder on the set of Native Report. Photo from Facebook

When I talk, I have a tendency to get excited and I wave my arms around and I start to talk faster and it was a real effort not to do either of those things. I think as the segments progress I will tend to be more spontaneous. I was reading from a teleprompter and the script was one I wrote myself. I worked on it all weekend and on Sunday night I read it to my wife, Ivy. I was proud of the fact that it was full of statistics and facts and after I finished reading it aloud she told me, “You can’t read that! It’s too much information and no one is going to listen to all those facts!”

That turned out to be some very good advice and I cut and shortened and then I cut and I shortened again. I sent the script in for review before I went to the studio. Juli Kellner is a producer for multiple shows at the television studio and she sent revisions back to me that were to the point and much, much better overall. I was really worried about how the shooting was going to go until she showed up and she stayed with me the entire time we were filming. She was a godsend and I’m grateful she was there. I think not many can say they had Juli Kellner put on their makeup.

At one point I talked about how we got to be where we are today. We have a history of being strong and resilient and we have somehow come to have some of the highest rates of smoking and cancer and diabetes of any other groups. Our suicide rate is higher than that of the general population and it disproportionately affects our young people. Losing our land, historical trauma, boarding schools and everything that led up to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act signed into law by Jimmy Carter in 1978 have put us where we are today.

With our losses we also lost our traditional lifestyle of hunting and fishing and gathering and being connected directly to the earth. Not all of us, but many of us are in this situation. Like any oppressed people, we learned to survive on what we had and white flour and processed sugar and high fat foods replaced our true traditional foods.

I grew up eating white rice and bacon grease and frybread and macaroni. Those are still strong comfort foods for me and they remind me of my mother. After my dad’s suicide when I was four years old, she raised seven kids pretty much by herself. We cooked everything in bacon grease and her frybread was still the best I’ve ever had.

But she was diagnosed with diabetes when she was thirty-eight years old. She went on to end-stage kidney failure and was on dialysis for years before she had a kidney transplant when I was in my third year of medical school. She went on to die of complications of diabetes the night I graduated from my residency at the Seattle Indian Health Board in 1997.

My younger brother Kelly suffered a stroke when he was 46 years old and he’d had diabetes for years and smoked cigarettes since we were young. He went from being the strongest person I know to being unable to move his left arm. He was a great fisherman and he invited me to come and have fish with him about ten years ago. He cut up northern pike and rolled it in eggs, then crushed crackers and he fried the fillets in a whole stick of butter. It was the best fish I’ve ever eaten and I only do that every ten or fifteen years or so. He ate like that all the time. He died in a shack without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing two days after Christmas when he was 53 years old. Bacon was on sale and he bought ten pounds of it the week before he had his stroke.

As we were filming the segment about what it means to be healthy, I stated that frybread and bacon grease and macaroni and cheese are not our traditional foods, but they have come to be seen that way. I imagine I will take some heat for that and I know people don’t want to give up the foods they love.

Change happens slowly and we’ll take this as it comes. I wish my mother and my brother would have made changes while they had the chance.

We have that chance. I want to be a resource for all of us as we go forward. Please watch Native Report and send me questions. I want to start each segment answering a question from a viewer in Minnesota, Alaska, Florida, California and everywhere else the program airs.

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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 northern Minnesota. He can be contacted at

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Arne Vainio: Happiness comes from my life of medical service (10/16)
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Arne Vainio: Doing more to support our Native youth in medicine (08/21)