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Niijii Celebration Warms Wisconsin Northwoods

LAC DU FLAMBEAU, Wis. - The humor and stories of Jim Northrup captivated the audience, and the music of Clinton J. Miller left them in awe at the Niijii Empowerment Celebration 2004, held at the Lake of the Torches Convention Center on Feb. 20.

Attendance was less than a third of what was predicted because of a raging blizzard that dumped over a foot of snow on the entire state. Yet the intimate gathering of community members and representatives from reservations around Wisconsin and Minnesota brought back memories of the old days, when winter storytelling was a vital tribal tradition in which stories and customs were passed from the elders to the young, and humor and camaraderie among the people made the brutal winter months easier to survive.

Members of the Lac du Flambeau sub-zone of the Northwoods Niijii Enterprise Community, Inc. (NNEC) created the event. NNEC was established in 1998, and consists of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Anishinaabe), the Menominee Nation, and the Sokaogan Mole Lake Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. NNEC oversees funds that were awarded by the USDA in the form of grants: funds applied toward improving these reservations and surrounding communities.

The feast/social hour featured the famed Lac du Flambeau drum group "Waswaagoning." Brian Poupart, Wayne Valliere, Bill Mitchell, Terry St. Germaine and Dan Jefferson played social and traditional Anishinaabe songs throughout the evening. Local chef Tweetie Thompson prepared wild rice and frybread.

Author Jim Northrup kicked off the entertainment with a captivating session of story-telling. Northrup, from the Fond du Lac reservation town of Sawyer, Minn., read from his collection of poems, humor and analogies gathered from various stages of his life. His trademark style of balancing humor with heartbreak demonstrated his skill as a master storyteller.

Shifting from despair to the healing power of laughter, Northrup then led the crowd through his notorious collection of jokes and 'Questions of the Month' from his syndicated Fond du Lac Follies column: "Question: Why is the white man in such a rush to get to Mars? Answer: They think we have land up there." Northrup's emotional roller coaster of a performance solidified his reputation as one of the most influential American Indian artists today.

Featured musician Clint Miller, from the Stockbridge-Munsee (Mohican) reservation town of Bowler, Wis. hypnotized the crowd as he blazed through an acoustic mixture of gems of his own and blues numbers. The gifted vocalist threw down a blistering version of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," drawing spectators inside to witness his energetic one-man band abilities on guitar.

Jim Northrup took the spotlight again to orchestrate a performance of his acclaimed play "Shinnob Jep," a parody of the game show "Jeopardy." Northrup played he host, Al Treebark, and his cast of actors drew countless belly laughs from the audience as they answered questions from categories ranging from "Commods Spanish" and "Trick or Treaties" to "Ricing" and "Rez Cars."

The snow still fell outside and the wind roared through the tall pines as the festivities drew to a close. However, the crowd went home feeling content and warm inside from laughter, with new memories that such a winter gathering brings.