Photo by Ivy Vainio

Arne Vainio: These things are trying to tell you something.

I was shopping for tractor parts when a young Native American man came up to me. “Are you the doctor on Native Report?” He asked.

“I am.” I replied.

“I watch it all the time and I want you to know it really helped me.”

“Thank you.” I said. “I’m glad it helped.”

“I’ve never met anyone on TV and I didn’t know if I should come up and talk to you. I got kind of nervous.” He said.

He went on. “I’m not from here. I grew up in Illinois and I had to leave the city I was in. All my friends were using and it was hard to stay away from them. I went to treatment close to here and I’ve been clean for 9 months. I like waking up hearing the birds sing. Before I never paid any attention to that and all I wanted was meth or heroin. I didn’t even know there were different kinds of birds, they were just birds to me.”

“How did you end up here?” I asked him.

Health Matters by Dr. Arne Vainio: Opiates - Native Report

“No real reason. I wanted to see Lake Superior and that was good enough for me. Some of the people in treatment are court ordered to be there and are just serving their time, but quite a few of them are really trying and it felt good to be with them. I’ve wanted to quit for a long time and I never thought I would be able to. Every time I tried to quit at home, someone would bring me something and there wasn’t anything else it seemed like I could do.”

“What are you doing now?” I asked him.

“My sponsor does roofing and I’ve been working with him. It’s hot work and it’s hard work, but I like earning my money and seeing what I’ve done. I’ve never been good at anything before and I like what I’m doing and I’ve been told I do nice work. I’ve never had a reason to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and that’s when I’ve been hearing the birds outside my bedroom window. I leave it open and they wake me up. They sing to me in the morning. Do you think that’s weird?”

“I don’t.” I answered. “One of my elders told me to pay attention to everything in the natural world. That includes the birds and the clouds and how the wind moves the trees. He told me all of those things are trying to tell you something and you need to look and listen to find out what that is.”

“Do you do that?” He asked.

“I do.” I replied. “I go outside every morning and I listen to the world. I have to get up early to do that and it starts my day out the way it should be. I put tobacco out for the spirits that watch over us and I think about the people I know who have died. I put coffee out for them in the morning and I give them the first drink.”

“How do you do that?” He asked.

“I spill it on the ground. A good friend of mine was dying and he asked me to spill some spring water I collected on the ground at his funeral. Ever since then I put coffee out for him every morning.”

“I didn’t grow up traditional.” He said. “My grandparents were in boarding school and they moved to the city to work after they finished school. They really didn’t have any traditional ways and my dad left when I was in kindergarten. Sometimes I think I’d look for him, but I don’t know what I would say. My mom struggled to raise me and my brother and we both ended up using drugs.”

“Where is your brother?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” He answered. “He used to call once in a while and he came over for Thanksgiving a few years ago and my mom got mad because he brought drugs with him. She didn’t know I was already using. I haven’t heard from him since.”

“Do you talk to your mom?” I asked.

“Not very often. She’s happy I went to treatment, but I think she wants to wait and see if I stay clean. My brother was put in treatment and he started using again the day he got out. I think she’s afraid that will happen to me.”

“Is that a valid fear?” I asked.

“I want to think it isn’t,” he answered, “but it would be easy to start using again. I was in treatment with someone who’s been in lots of times and he always thinks he can just use a little bit without getting started again. I need to stay with clean people like my sponsor. I know I’d never make it without that support. What did you mean when you said you put tobacco out?”

“Tobacco is central to all of our ceremonies,” I told him. “We offer it to the spirits when we say our prayers and I put it on clean ground for them every morning so they can help us live in a good way. Sometimes it gets smoked and sometimes it can be burned in a clean fire.”

“I smoke,” he said. “Can I count that?”

“It’s not the same thing.” I told him. “When you’re smoking just to smoke, you’re abusing a gift and something sacred. Tobacco is a powerful medicine and when people abuse it in non-traditional ways it can do a lot of damage and lead to some tragic health problems like heart disease, strokes and cancers.”

“My grandfather had a stroke,” he replied. “He was really angry about that and he died in a nursing home. He smoked, but I don’t think I can quit right now. Everyone in treatment smokes and we take smoke breaks when we’re roofing.”

“People quit smoking all the time.” I told him. ”It might be hard right now when you’re still fighting other addictions, but you can do this. You’ve already proven yourself to be strong and you know the people you work with respect you. From what I know of you in just this short time, I see a life of promise.” “Do you really think so?” he asked.

“Absolutely.” I answered. I took out a pill bottle I carry with me and I opened it. “This is traditional tobacco, asemaa, and I make it in the winter. Making it is a slow process and it takes weeks staying up late at night making enough to get me through the year.”

I took some asemaa out of the bottle and I put it in his hand. “I’m giving you this as a sign of respect. You have changed your life and the path you were on was not the path that was meant for you. You need to share your strengths with others and you need to accept the strengths others offer you. Your strengths are not the same and you will need all of them combined to help each other.”

He was silent as I put the cap back on and handed the bottle to him. Tears welled up and he grasped the bottle and held it to his chest.

“I’m not used to having people believe in me, Dr. Vainio. It feels like a big responsibility.”

“It is a big responsibility, Daniel. Remember to look and listen to the world around you. These things are trying to tell you something.”

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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