We’re leaving for Eleuthera Island soon

By Arne Vainio, M.D.
News From Indian Country

We’re leaving for Eleuthera Island soon. When our son Jacob was born twenty years ago, my wife Ivy wanted him to know his history. She worked tirelessly and used online sources and phone calls to elders and relatives to find and track down any leads she could find. She was able to find the grave of her great uncle Johnny Mercer in the American Cemetery in Luxembourg.

He was a tail gunner in a B-17 bomber in World War II and left home to fight when he was nineteen years old. His plane was shot down on his 6th mission and he was lost to his family. We traveled to Luxembourg as a family in 2013 when Jacob was fifteen years old and I sang an old Ojibwe song to Johnny and 5,076 veterans in the solemn silence of the cemetery. We sat on the grass next to his grave and shared a meal with him. Ivy was able to run her hand over his gravestone and we brought him a message of love from Ivy’s then 87 year-old grandmother.

Through Ivy’s dedication and the kindness and generosity of relative strangers we now consider close friends, she was able to find history on both sides of my family. My ties to the boarding school era are not all that distant. It was Ivy who spotted George Earth at a pow wow and brought him back into our lives after a half century of separation. George introduced my parents to each other and tragedy split us apart when I was four years old. After finding him I was able to be part of his life and ultimately a part of his death. Every morning when I put my asemaa out, I spill the first drink of my coffee on the ground for George and for all those who have gone before. I thank them for their sacrifices and for helping me learn my language and traditions.

Ivy was born out of wedlock and she never met her biological father. Her mother gave her as much information as she had and Ivy was able to track down the location of the funeral home her father ran just outside of Tampa, Florida. We went there to see what we could find when Jacob was eighteen months old and Ivy’s family knew nothing about her.

I always think when you’re finding your family history, you want there to be a haunted Scottish castle on a moor and maybe some kind of lost treasure. Instead, we found poverty in the heart of Tampa and we found love and acceptance. We have never known better and more giving people than Ivy’s family and we travel there when we can to strengthen those ties. She found out her grandmother was from the Bahamas, but no one knew much else. We went on a three day cruise when Jacob was about five years old and it allowed us to set foot on the soil of Nassau in the Bahamas. We were on the island for four hours and had to get back on the ship, but we were there.

Two years ago, we traveled to Nassau for a three day vacation. Jacob, now Jake, had done what the next generation always does. He grew up and left home to seek his own path and his music and now it was just me and Ivy. When everyone else was on the beach, we were sitting in a small dark room in the Office of Records looking through thousands of records on microfiche. The records weren’t organized in any specific pattern and we had to look through all of them. It took us all day and the few records we were able to find pointed us to Rock Sound on Eleuthera Island. The one record that held the most promise had been scanned with a sticky note on it years prior and that sticky note was blocking the most important information.

The next day we got on a ferry at 7:30 AM. It was cold and windy on the open water and we weren’t dressed for it. We huddled close to each other and we shivered as we looked out over the endless dark water. The ferry slowly rode up each wave and came crashing down on the other side and we could see and hear the cold water splashing back into the ocean. The trip was almost four hours and when we got to Eleuthera Island we had just a few hours there. We were miles and miles from Rock Sound and we only wanted to be on the island to make that first connection. We rented a golf cart and drove to the beach so Ivy could stand on the island her grandmothers stood on. We held hands as we walked barefoot through the crystal clear water along the pink sand beach and we looked out over the ocean. Thousands of miles in the distance was the west coast of Africa.

I cannot imagine the journey on a slave ship coming from Africa, brutally taken from family and quickly finding out life was a commodity and worth very little. Children and parents were separated from each other without any regard for them as people and beaten and tortured. They were shackled and chained and packed into the dark holds of ships to be taken across the ocean and sold as property with no way out. We do not have any knowledge of who came over and when and those records may not even exist.

We will have five days on Eleuthera Island and we will be staying in Rock Sound. This is a small community of about a thousand people. We’re bringing Jake and his girlfriend and we will go to the cemetery and to any churches and we will ask around. We will snorkel and walk in the sun and feel the ocean breeze and we will seek those beginnings.

Sidney Portier came from the Bahamas. Lenny Kravitz comes from Eleuthera Island. Ivy comes from Eleuthera Island and so does Jake.

We will find those connections.

We will stand on the beach and wait for the sunrise. In the moments before the sun breaks the horizon and in the stillness and quiet of that moment, we will know the last place that sunrise was seen was on the western coast of Africa.

Those who have helped us in this journey are invariably those who are invisible to everyone else. Gardeners, maintenance men, hotel maids, cab drivers and others. When we were in Nassau two years ago, we were on a bus to the hotel and just coming back from the Office of Records. Ivy was excited about the leads we had uncovered and was telling the bus driver she was seeking her history.

His laugh was deep and genuine.

“Welcome home, girl! What took you so long?”

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

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