Arne Vainio: We lost a fluent Ojibwe speaker in Larry Smallwood

Amik O’Gaabaw, also known as Larry Smallwood, passed away on April 11, 2017. Photo courtesy Ivy Vainio

Good people are all around us
By Arne Vainio, M.D.

We lost another fluent Ojibwe speaker in Amik O’Gaabaw, Larry Smallwood, on April 11, 2017.

Amik has forever been the emcee at powwows and other events and his voice and his sense of humor were familiar to anyone traveling the powwow circuit. When they heard his voice they knew they could call this place home, even if only for a little while. Skinny leg jeans, a Harley-Davidson jacket, cowboy boots, dark glasses and a cowboy hat worked to make him one of the coolest Indians anywhere.

He was dedicated to revitalizing the Ojibwe language and advocated for immersion in the language and always said our language was the backbone of our traditions and our ceremonies and our way of life. Watching him tell stories in Ojibwe brought visions of a time I never knew, a time when elders would tell stories to their children and grandchildren by the light of a kerosene lamp in the early winter darkness as the wind howled and moaned outside. Those stories would be told by the eldest in the family to the youngest so they could remain to be told for the longest time and Amik told those stories.

There are only a few entrusted to do our funerals and send our loved ones back to our ancestors in the proper way and Amik was among the most trusted and treasured of them. He was interviewed for a series on the KUMD radio station in Duluth, Minnesota and those stories and teachings persist on the web. Some of those stories can be found here:

These are good teachings for anyone who has never heard him and a good chance to hear his voice again for those who knew him. He taught the Ojibwe language and culture at the immersion camp in Rutledge, Minnesota and was a spiritual advisor to many. His voice is one of the voices in The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary: He was a teacher to our teachers.

His funeral was the biggest I’ve ever seen and there was standing room only in the community center and everyone there knew we were seeing one of our very best travel on. My wife Ivy and I could hear conversations around us in fluent Ojibwe and many of those conversations were possible only because of Amik and his dedication to our language and our traditions.

When we lose an elder, we lose a library. Those he took the time to teach have that much more work ahead of them, myself included.

I have always said the circle of truly good people surrounding me and Ivy is beyond what we could ever have expected or hoped for and that circle keeps expanding. Good people are all around us. Amik was among the best of them and he wanted us to respect each other and support each other. He wanted us to learn our language and our traditions. He wanted us to be strong as a people.

Giigawaabamin, Amik. I will see you again.

Give my mother a hug when you see her.

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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