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Arne Vainio: Water is Life -- A sacred journey to Standing Rock

Filed Under: Opinion
More on: arne vainio, dakota access pipeline, george earth, north dakota, standing rock sioux, water, women

At the #NoDAPL encampment in North Dakota. Photo by Ivy Vainio

Water is life
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

March 27, 2016. Easter Sunday.

I woke up early and drove to the spring in darkness. My mother always collected spring water at sunrise on Easter morning and we put it in the 10 gallon metal cream cans that held our drinking water. We used it for drinking and cooking, but she always set some aside to be used for ceremonies or if any of us were sick. It never occurred to me to question why Easter would have any significance for us and I simply accepted it as fact.

Easter Sunday was in March this year and there was a light snow falling as I left the house with as many water bottles as I could carry. I had juice bottles and my drinking water bottle and I pulled in to the spring just as the sun was rising. There were no other tracks and the sound of the water flowing was muffled by the falling snow. I walked to the spring and I put my asemaa in the cold, clear water.

“Miigwech manitoog iwidi nibiikang, wiidookaawishinaam weweni. Thank you, spirits who live in the water, help us in a good way.”

I took my hand drum from the bag made by one of the nurses I work with and I faced the rising sun. As I started singing, a single chickadee landed on a branch close by and he sang as I sang and when I finished singing, he flew away. I put my drum away and I filled all my water bottles from the spring.

I took out my cell phone and I called George Earth. He was 80 years old and suffering from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable and progressive lung disease. He didn’t sleep well and I often called him late at night when I was watching the trees sway in the moonlight or hearing the trees pop and crack in the bitter cold of the long winter nights.

When I traveled, I would call him from the road and let him know where I was. He and I took a four day trip to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming a couple years earlier and he spent that entire time telling me the things he held important and he liked listening to the science as we looked at the milky way under the vast starry nights in the big sky country of Wyoming and South Dakota.

I knew he saw that sky through different eyes.

Whenever I went to the ocean, I would call him when I was standing in the water with the tide pulling at my feet and we would put our asemaa (sacred tobacco) out together and I knew he waited for my calls. I told him about the water I had collected and about singing to the rising sun and about the chickadee.

“Arne, I want you to pour some of that water on the ground at my funeral. Will you do that for me?” I didn’t want him to be talking like that, but he had no illusions about his fate. He asked me again and I gave him my promise.

He died about three weeks later and death came to him quickly. I used some of that water to make cedar water and one of his lifelong friends and I washed him with it and I spilled some on the ground at his funeral as he asked.

I kept the rest of the water and sometimes when I went outside at night to watch the trees in the moonlight, I would take some of the water with me to spill or I would make tea with it.

My wife Ivy and I traveled to Standing Rock a few weeks ago. I took the rest of the water with me, hoping I would be able to give it to someone who would understand what it meant to me. We got there late on a Friday night and the first fire I stopped at was the Two Spirit camp. I was welcomed with open arms and it was my first hug there and it was where I got my last hug when we finally left.

The next morning we were up for the sunrise ceremony and we stood with several hundred others in the dark, waiting for the sun to come up. The elder leading the prayer asked all of us to be prayerful and respectful of everyone else, including the National Guard and the police.

“We pray for those who run those big corporations so they can see us as people. They have children and they have ancestors and we are protecting their water as well.”

We saw the flags from tribes all over the United States and we saw flags of other nations in support of the water protectors. I sat with a man from Jamaica at supper and a black man from Philadelphia and I bonded instantly and I gave him the pocket tool I always carry.

We weren’t very well prepared and we slept in the car. The reclining seats left a lot to be desired and the edge of the seat was cutting off the circulation in my legs and there was no way to make it better. It was freezing in the car and the blankets didn’t really wrap around us very well. The windows were all fogged over by five AM and it was still a couple hours until sunrise.

Ivy was awake and we got up to see if there was another sunrise ceremony and we waited in the predawn darkness. There was no ceremony scheduled and we walked to a fire in the main part of the camp and the women were gathering for a water ceremony.

The women are the keepers and the protectors of the water and they had a copper vessel filled with water and they were bringing it around to everyone gathered around the fire. I asked the elder doing the ceremony if I could bring the water I collected at the spring and I briefly told her the story of the water I brought with.

“Yes, please bring it to me,” she said.

She poured the water into the copper vessel and everyone began walking to the river. The women walked first and the men walked behind. We stopped for anyone along the way and they drank some of the water and joined us on our journey to the river. We sang water songs during the walk to the river and the songs were in languages from all over the world.

They chose Ivy to carry the copper vessel to the river to finish the ceremony. The river bank was steep and slippery and the men lined up on both sides of the path going to the water and the women walked between them.

Ivy held the copper vessel close to her heart as she solemnly walked between us. She was tall and proud and regal and I could see her grandmothers in her as she descended the riverbank to the water.

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

More from Arne Vainio:
Arne Vainio: Honoring unsung heroes in our throwaway society (10/18)
Arne Vainio: A father wishes for 'more time' after burying his son (09/19)
Arne Vainio: The late Jim Northrup shared his calling with the world (08/18)
Arne Vainio: A powerful homecoming for family in our troubled times (07/18)
Arne Vainio: Congratulating our graduates on a major milestone (06/16)
Arne Vainio: A mother's gift carried me through many life journeys (05/26)
Arne Vainio: Saying Giigawaabamin (goodbye) to uncle and elder George Earth (04/19)
Arne Vainio: Let's start to banish the shame associated with suicide (03/03)
Arne Vainio: Watch Native Report for first Health Matters segment (02/16)
Arne Vainio: Starting a new medical segment for Native Report (12/15)
Arne Vainio: A mother opens up after the death of her child (11/16)
Arne Vainio: Happiness comes from my life of medical service (10/16)
Arne Vainio: Learning to dance to bring healing for our people (09/24)
Arne Vainio: Doing more to support our Native youth in medicine (08/21)

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