Dr. Arne Vainio
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe
My father committed suicide on July 17, 1963, when I was four years old. Within the next year, my mom was drinking heavily and left my six year old sister in charge and we burned our house down and were separated. I don’t remember for how long, but my older sister Shelly and I stayed in a house where a girl about Shelly’s age slept with her eyes open. We used to wake up to watch her.
AGE 5 OR 6:
My mother married Carl, an alcoholic lumberjack. I found one of his old pay stubs once and he made $53.00 a week. My mom had 2 kids with him, bringing the total to seven. She divorced him after 11 years. We lived in the “orange house” and as kids we were convinced it was haunted. We didn’t have electricity and we had to climb down into a well to get water. The house was in a swamp and the cellar door was nailed shut because the cellar was full of water. We read by kerosene lamps and “The Thing in the Cellar” was the scariest story ever written as far as we were concerned.
We moved from Alango to Bear River, about 10 miles, but we had to switch schools. Eddie Adams got into his dad’s liquor cupboard and we got drunk that summer. Larry Rautiola became one of my best friends and we worked in the woods together. He was killed when a tree fell on him when he was 18.
When we moved to Bear River, My uncle Punkin used to come and get me to go fishing or hunting, almost always illegally. I held the light in the back seat and he shot deer at night through the driver’s window. He raced an old Ford on the Hibbing dirt stock car track. He was my hero and I would have gone anywhere with him. He bought me my first car when I was 12, a 1948 Chrysler. I wrecked it when I was drunk one night at age 14. When we were kids, my Finnish grandmother was the nicest woman I’d ever met. My Ojibwe grandmother was the meanest woman I’d ever met and I don’t recall her ever saying anything nice to me.
I made the B honor roll on a bet in the 10th grade and never tried it again. My high school counselor told me I wasn’t college material and I believed him. Leonard Ojala was a fill-in counselor and he and his wife took me to UMD and told me I could go there. (Many years later, when I did end up at UMD, I had a GPA of 0.00 after my first 2 quarters).
I worked on a dairy farm in high school and made $1.90 an hour and wanted to be a farmer. After high school I was a bartender at several bars. I worked on a saw mill for a couple years and I traveled working construction for several years and became an extremely good heavy equipment operator. I came back to Minnesota and was running a skidder for a logging company. I left for Los Angeles in 1985 with a vague plan to start in the mailroom at Hughes Aircraft and work my way up to being company president. I could tell when I brought my application in that the secretary just threw it away before I even left the building. I came back to build my mother a house in 1985 and it was the first time she’d had indoor plumbing in decades.
I took a 110 hour Emergency Medical Technician course after Edwin Peterson died with people around him who didn’t know what to do. The EMT course was the first time I was around dedicated people who were on fire for a cause. When the course was over, it was simply over and I went back to work in the body shop I was working in. A semi full of logs hit a pickup and I saved a woman’s life and we both knew it. That eventually led to me working on the Virginia Fire Department in Virginia, Minnesota. I loved going into fires and I loved being in the back of the ambulance and those firefighters are still my brothers. A friend of mine was killed in a car accident and when I found out it was her, I questioned why we didn’t do more. That made me question whether I was even fit to be a paramedic. Mark Gujer, my paramedic instructor, convinced me we should quit our jobs and finish college to go into medical school. He and I dominated every class we were in and we studied constantly.
I got into the UMD School of Medicine in 1990. My mother was on dialysis and had a kidney transplant when I was in my 3rd year of medical school. I planned on staying in Minnesota for my residency, but the Seattle Indian Health Board flew me there to look at the program and I couldn’t say no. I loved SIHB. Ivy and I were married in Las Vegas during my third year of residency and the wedding weekend was the last time I saw my mother. She died the night I graduated residency and I had no reason to come back to Minnesota except a promise to an Ojibwe elder, Ruth Meyers. I started working as a physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in 1997 and our son, Jacob was born in 1998.