Catching up With Writer Jim Northrup

A chat with esteemed Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa author, playwright, poet and Marine veteran Jim Northrup.
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SAWYER, Minn. - In the massive 60-gallon cast iron kettle, the wild rice grains crackle as writer Jim Northrup stirs it with a canoe paddle in a gentle circular scraping motion. "If you build a smaller fire you have less of a chance of burning it." Northrup explains the process in both Ojibwe and English, his conversation sprinkled with his trademark deadpan humor. "Over in Wisconsin, they call it scorching."

In the ricing camp in his front yard, Northrup and his wife Pat are preparing wild rice for storage. "Manoomin iike ishkode." Northrup explains with a twinkle in his eye. "It's part of the seasonal circle of the Anishinaabe - to gather and prepare manoomin (wild rice) for the winter ahead." Pat is nearby, "dancing" on the rice. This is an age-old method of separating the rice from the thick hulls after parching. Today she has logged the equivalent of 5.37 miles onto her pedometer.

"Okay, ready." Northrup says. Pat places a large, shallow birch bark fanning basket on the ground to catch the rice kernels as Jim scoops them from the cauldron with a small kettle. A few of the grains fly past the edges of the basket and end up on the ground. "Somebody wanted that ?" Pat smiles. "Good answer," replies the ever-witty Northrup. Northrup made the basket himself, the boreal forest where the bark was gathered is just yards from his back door.

As a poet, playwright, storyteller, and veteran, audiences far and wide have come to know Jim Northrup for his brilliant and hilarious storytelling. His monthly column "Fond du Lac Follies" is syndicated, and his readings and lectures continue to attract large groups of spectators.

Literature critics and people of all ages and races celebrate his books. Northrup's use of humor and honesty to transform the human condition from fear, anger, and despair into love, kindness, and healing is a brilliant example of the importance of the arts, and the revered gift of storytelling.

Humor is also Northrup's way to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, a souvenir of his tour of Vietnam. "I had PSTD before doctors gave it a name." he says, biting on a wild rice kernel to test its doneness. Veterans Administration PSTD support groups utilize his poem "Shrinking Away" and "Wahbegan" to encourage participants' in-group discussions.

A resident of the Fond du Lac Reservation town of Sawyer, Northrup, 60, lives with Pat (his Dakota wife of almost 19 years) and their family. The genuine warmth and fondness for each other is obvious, and love for their family is also evident when his 13-year-old son Ezigaa stops by. Northrup believes that one of the answers to preserving Indian culture especially within families and among children - is language. Ezigaa exudes good upbringing. He introduces himself in flawless Ojibwe, and Northrup beams with pride.

At age 6 Northrup was sent to the Pipestone Boarding School in Pipestone, Minn. where his "formal" education began and he was introduced to the English language. Northrup attempted to run away from the school because of the suffering experienced by himself and the other students. "Nighttime was the worst. On one end of the room, a young kid would start to cry in his bed. It was like a domino effect; soon the whole room was sobbing. The next day everyone would carry on like nothing happened." Beatings and loneliness became a way of life at Pipestone.

He went on to a Christian boarding school in Hot Springs, S.D. He graduated from high school in 1961, and then served in the Marine Corps as an Automatic Rifleman. His relatives have fought in both world wars and Korea, and also battled with the Dakota back in the 1700s. "It was my time to go," he said. Northrup was assigned to the India Company, 3rd Battalion, in the 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. He was sent to Vietnam.

"Exactly 36 years ago today was the first time I saw the real horror of that war, my platoon was ambushed in Danang and I saw a man get blown to pieces." he remembers. His experiences are recalled in detail in his books "Rez Road Follies" and "Walking the Rez Road." Northrup is in guise as the character Luke Warmwater, a veteran who survives the war but also has trouble "surviving the peace."

Northrup returned to the United States and spent 10 years drifting from city to city, working a variety of different jobs. He returned home in the late '70s, "Once a Fonjalacker, always a Fonjalacker." he reasons. He found sanctity in the woods and wild rice lakes there. He also met Pat. They spend their days among the basswoods and pines with their family and relatives. Northrup speaks at schools and gatherings, and is always willing to share his knowledge.

The greed and absurdity of political issues is a subject Northrup is not scared to discuss. He denounces the resulting class-based system established after the construction of the tribe's casinos. When asked about tossing his bandana into the political arena, he replied, "I have thought of running for tribal council," that barbed humor once again emerging, "but I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

This is the 15-year anniversary of the first-ever "Fond du Lac Follies" column. Northrup is interested in publishing the entire collection in chronological order. He is also putting together his full-scale production of "Shinnob Jep," his new play that parodies the game show "Jeopardy." Northrup plays the host, Al Treebark, and the contestants compete against one another by answering questions from categories ranging from Race Relations and Tribal Councils to Rez Cars and U.S. History.

His one-man show "Stories and Lies" will be available on DVD by December. Taped at the Great American History Theater Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. in 2000, the compelling collection of stories takes the viewer from belly laughs to tear-jerking reminiscences of the violence and brutality of Vietnam and its aftermath. Bolts of freewheeling hilarity vividly illuminate "Stories and Lies." Excellently produced, this show is a must-see trip through the Northrup landscape.

In these times of international strife and endless violence, an Anishinaabe man who has seen it all finds solace in cleaning his wild rice with his wife. Their nimble fingers separate any remaining hulls, revealing the shiny grains beneath. He offers the most inherent piece of wisdom: "Treat others like this is your last day above ground."

Jim Northrup gives us reasons not to be cynical, and to appreciate ourselves and our ancestors' sacrifices and traditions. He is a jewel of the Indian nation and an inspiration for survivors everywhere. Giinitam, Jim.

To contact Jim Northrup, e-mail him at northrup@cp.duluth.mn.us.