Film promotes Native health by following doctor's life
DULUTH - Jason Schlender's family loved to eat big steak and shrimp dinners, followed by lots of cake. His father, Jim Schlender, grew up poor, and as he attained success in life as a tribal attorney and treaty rights activist, his Lac Courte Ore...
DULUTH - Jason Schlender's family loved to eat big steak and shrimp dinners, followed by lots of cake.
His father, Jim Schlender, grew up poor, and as he attained success in life as a tribal attorney and treaty rights activist, his Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe family celebrated time together with good food.
"He wanted to be able to take care of his family," said Jason Schlender, a UWS graduate. "He was proud of that ... but he should have had a better diet."
Jim Schlender's lifestyle helped lead to his death in 2005 at the age of 58, a story his son shares in a local documentary nominated for an Emmy last week.
"Walking into the Unknown," a film aimed at American Indian men, took two years to make. It has been shown to a number of Indian audiences since its completion earlier this year.
The film features Dr. Arne Vainio, a physician at the Min No Aya Win Human Services Center on the Fond du Lac Reservation. It follows the doctor as he goes through his own health care exams and procedures for middle-aged men.
It includes an intimate look at a prostate exam and a colonoscopy as a way of demystifying what they entail.
The inspiration for the film came from Vainio's experience as an Indian and his work as a physician.
"I was getting really frustrated with Native guys not coming in," Vainio said. "The people I see grew up the same as I did. We have this connection. So it was a personal thing to do a lot of that, but seeing someone else go through it gives them permission."
Vainio's wife, Ivy Vainio, produced the film and has organized dozens of screenings on reservations, at colleges and medical conferences and for diabetes and cancer survivor groups. An organization in Australia that works with indigenous aboriginal men recently requested the use of the film for a national gathering, she said.
The Emmy nod, in the cultural documentary category by the Midwest Emmy Chapter, wasn't expected, but Vainio and director Nate Maydole hope it helps spread the film's message.
Maydole, a 2006 University of Minnesota Duluth graduate, said the film is unique in its storytelling nature, and in the way the doctor faces vulnerability by becoming the patient.
"He's really the poster-child for Native American men and health care," Maydole said. "It's really available to them, and they just choose not to do it."
Vainio, with family histories of diabetes, suicide and heart disease, knew he didn't see a physician as much as he should, and that there were others like him. The film, inspired partly by a handful of men on the reservation Vainio knew who had health risks and refused care, already has done its job. Some of those very men were encouraged to seek out care within a couple of weeks of viewing the film, Vainio said.
But Vainio knows of men who wouldn't seek treatment until it was too late, with one dying of pneumonia that could have been treated, he said.
American Indian men avoid medical care because they have "a warrior background and mentality," Vainio said. "We can't show that we're weak. That does us in as a people."
For Jason Schlender, mistrust of doctors after his father died led him to avoid their care for a time, along with the notion that discovering problems would slow life down.
"We don't want to be told bad news," he said. "We just want to live."
American Indians have shorter life spans than Caucasians, Vainio said, and have high rates of diabetes, heart disease and alcoholism.
Schlender's father, former executive director of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, died from a pulmonary embolism after routine surgery. Schlender said his father went from active as a younger man to being too busy to work out as he grew older. Schlender, 33, and an adjunct instructor at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe Community College, suffers from the same poor diet of his father. He doesn't drink or smoke and is working to avoid fast food, bringing coolers of healthier food when toting his three children throughout the day.
But it's hard to avoid foods with higher fat content, because within those foods also lies memories, he said.
"It's a way to reminisce," he said. "We'd go eat after golfing, have a big steak. There were a lot of those times. But the pressure is on me to walk the walk. I'm on film saying all these things, yet I am still overweight."
BUY THE FILM
The film "Walking into the Unknown" has been sent gratis to 355 Indian Health Service diabetes programs. It can be purchased for $15 at walkingintotheunknown.com.