Gijigijigaaneshinh (chickadee). Photo courtesy Arne Vainio

Arne Vainio: 'A great sickness has been visited upon us as human beings'


Ivy and I were in the living room when we heard a bird hit the window. I have stickers on the windows to prevent that, but they don’t always work. I went outside and found an injured chickadee on our front step. I carefully shut the door behind me and I was just a couple of feet away from him. He was close to the red willow I had gathered to make apaakozigan (traditional Ojibwe tobacco) and he was rightfully and wisely afraid of me.

He was stunned, but he was standing on both feet and he was watching me carefully. He had a loose feather over one eye and he had feathers sticking out from several other places.

I knelt down and moved closer and stopped when he tried to move away. I talked to him softly. “Are you OK? I don’t want to pick you up. I’ll stay here until you’re better.” We stayed on the front step and he stayed still and continued to watch me. I carefully took my asemaa from my pocket. I poured some into my hand and held it out to him, then put it on the concrete as close to him as I could.

“Boozhoo, gijigijigaaneshinh. Daga odaapinik nidasemaam.” (Hello, chickadee. Please accept my tobacco). I introduced myself to him in Ojibwe and told him my Ojibwe name, my clan, where my tribe was and my deceased mother’s and deceased father’s names.

I didn’t really have anything more to say and we were quiet again. He was watching me intently and he wasn’t showing any signs he was going to fly.

I talk to the chickadees when I fill the bird feeder, but mostly to tell them I’m bringing food and inviting them to eat. They fly close to me sometimes if I take too long to fill the feeder.

Arne Vainio, M.D., receives the Physician of the Year from the Association of American Indian Physicians during the organization's annual conference in Shawnee, Oklahoma, on July 28, 2017. Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio

“Gijigijigaaneshinh, I have noticed there are less of you in the past few years and I see less birds in general. Last year I was worried because I didn’t see any bees until much later than usual and there were not as many of them. The climate is changing and there are huge storms and floods and fires and the oceans are rising due to glaciers melting. Insects don’t hatch at the right time to support birds that are migrating. I know that makes it difficult for you to survive.

“An elder told me birds protect the sky and we were put here to be a part of creation and respect the earth and everything on it. We have not been respectful of that relationship and this is an enormous responsibility for you to bear alone. We learned to extract things from the earth and we forgot to take only what we need. Most of the time we don’t even look up and notice the sky and we don’t listen to your songs. Our creation stories tell us each of us has a purpose and we are interdependent on each other.

“I have been told whenever someone comes to bring us a message or to help us change, the one sent has always been imperfect. Maybe we were expecting someone bigger and seemingly more important. Now I see you as a very small, but very timely messenger. You risked your life to carry this message and this shows courage out of proportion to your size.

“A great sickness has been visited upon us as human beings. This happened to us as Native people a long time ago and it devastated us and killed us by the millions. It took our elders and our babies alike and there was nothing we could do.

“This new sickness affects all people from all over the world. It takes our elders and those most vulnerable. It takes people with cancer and heart disease, it takes people with diabetes and other chronic diseases. It spreads quickly and easily between people. It spreads at funerals and birthday parties and all public places and it can be spread by someone with no symptoms at all. It spreads at the places we should feel the safest, at our ceremonies and in our churches. Gathering together should be our strength, but with this sickness it is our downfall.

“We are having difficulty convincing people this is coming and people still gather. I worry for my elders and I worry for the people I work with.

“I want to tell you I am sorry and I ask your forgiveness. I was told that all things in the natural world are trying to tell us something and that we need to listen to find out what that is. I thought I was listening, but you wouldn’t have hurt yourself if I was. We have lost our way from our creation stories.

I would ask you to go and tell your brothers and sisters I hear your message. I will do the same.”

He fluffed his feathers and brought them back in and he was less damaged and he only had a few loose feathers. I waited quietly and he fluffed his feathers again and hopped a few short hops, but he didn’t fly.

“Miigwech, little messenger. I will remember you in my prayers.”

He fluffed himself one more time, took a short hop and he was flying. He flew straight and true and easily and he landed in the tree closest to me and he started to sing.

I have been listening to the chickadees sing since I was five years old. My Finnish grandmother told me they change their song in the spring and she called them spring birds. I listened to him sing and I was listening for the difference in his message to his brothers and sisters.

I didn’t hear it. His song was the same as it has ever been and I realized he was giving the same message he’s been giving all along. It’s me who needs to change and it’s me who needs to carry his message.

I took a break from writing when News from Indian Country stopped publication last August and it felt good to be free of deadlines for the last six months or so. I appreciate the forum I have here and I still have something to say.

Stay safe everyone. Wash your hands. The Coronavirus has an oily membrane surrounding it and soap and water tears the virus apart. Keep our elders and our most vulnerable safe. Don’t gather. Church services and ceremonies will allow this virus to spread. You can still be spiritual and prayerful at home. Use technology to stay in touch with those you love. Call an elder. They are alone and they are afraid. Teach them to use Skype or Zoom or other platforms and talk to them every day. Respect each other and cut each other some slack. Everyone is stressed, lives are changed, medical systems are overwhelmed and we have never seen anything like this. Any public gatherings endanger those we care about and are connected to. We can slow the spread of COVID-19 by sheltering in place.

And remember. We are a part of creation, but only a part of it. Everything in the natural world is trying to tell us something. We need to listen to those messages to find our way back.

Arne Vainio, MD 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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