'A voice for the people': Renowned Ojibwe author Jim Northrup remembered
Jim Northrup was a "tough man" who taught his eldest sons to survive in the elements by living in a tepee on the Fond du Lac Reservation for several years, when money and jobs were scarce.
But it was more than physical survival, said his son, Matthew, on Tuesday, the day after his father died from cancer-related complications. He taught them how to be strong in a world that didn't treat everyone the same, he said, using humor — and education — as tools.
" 'When you have really nothing else,' he said to me a lot, 'you have your humor,' " Matthew said. "When you grow up poor on the rez and when you grow up a lower class in society, you realize that."
Northrup, an award-winning writer of books, columns, plays and poetry — and a prominent member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — died Monday night. He was 73.
Northrup was a storyteller, known for his stark and honest writing about his experience as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam and his early years at a federal boarding school. He was funny and pointed in his writings about everyday life on the reservation, politics and change in Indian Country. He wrote as a way to heal himself from some of the trauma he experienced during the war, he said earlier this year.
"I knew my poetry was being used in vets' groups to help people open up (and) maybe even write their own poetry as part of their healing," he told the News Tribune in March. "It worked for me, so I hoped it helped (others)."
Wisconsin poet laureate and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Kim Blaeser called Northrup "a voice for the people."
"He had a truly wonderful talent for balancing the humorous and the heartfelt," she said. "He was smart and he was slyly sarcastic. And within that he had a gift of seeing the world as a whole to help his readers — Anishinaabe and not — to re-see what they thought they understood. So he was always undercutting and toying with people's previous ideas. And in doing that he unmasked stereotypes ... and he challenged racial injustice."
Northrup was born in 1943 in the Fond du Lac Reservation hospital, one of 11 children; his Ojibwe name was Chibenesi, or large bird. He was forced with his sister to attend the Pipestone (Minn.) Indian School in 1947, spending four years there; it was a place where Indian children were kept from speaking their languages to assimilate them to white culture, and where Northrup was beaten by both adults and other children. He suffered from severe homesickness, once running away from the school and making it nine miles before he was caught.
He attended a reform school in South Dakota, and graduated from Carlton High School in 1961 — the school's first Native American graduate. He attended the College of St. Scholastica and received an honorary degree from the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College.
From 1965 to 1966, he served in Vietnam; his time there prompted intense poetry and stories about the horrors of war, and dealing with the aftermath at home. But he also wrote about his war experience with dry wit. From his book, "Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View from the Rez," he wrote:
"In Vietnam, Bob Hope came to help us celebrate Christmas. I couldn't figure out the link between peace on earth and a rice paddy fire fight. Today there is no tree inside my house. We just leave them outside where they continue to grow."
Post-Vietnam, he was a deputy with the Carlton County Sheriff's Office, and a patrolman for the Waukegan Police Department in illinois. Upon returning to Sawyer he worked in construction, building the home he lived in with his wife, Pat, who he married in 1986. Between the two of them, they had eight children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Northrup's column "Fond du Lac Follies," was syndicated in several Native American newspapers. His books include "Walking the Rez Road," "Rez Road Follies," "Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View from the Rez," "Dirty Copper" and "Rez Salute: the Real Healer Dealer."
Jim and Pat Northrup were well-known for their traditional birch bark winnowing baskets, the maple syrup they made with family and friends gathered around the boil, and the wild rice they harvested and parched. They started an Ojibwe language camp on the reservation several years ago that is held each year; this year's happened in late July, with Northrup in attendance. A practitioner of traditional Anishinaabe spirituality and beliefs, Northrup was a role model to younger generations.
In recent years Northrup had acted with a sense of purpose, as he worked to pass things on to others, said Arne Vainio, Northrup's doctor and longtime friend.
Northrup talked to Vainio about writing, reminding his friend that what he (Vainio) says is meaningful.
"It's important for me to use that gift," Vainio said.
The loss of Northrup is poignant and large, he said, for his role as a warrior, as a keeper of traditions and as an ambassador to visitors from around the world.
Every time an elder dies, it is a loss of a "library," Vainio said. "He was one of the biggest libraries of all."
Northrup had long been a passionate student of the Ojibwe language, working to regain what was lost to him during his early boarding school years.
He encouraged others to learn Ojibwe while he, too, was learning, Blaeser said.
"That was very important for other people to see, 'No, I am not too old; see, I can do this,'" she said of Northrup.
Matthew Northrup marveled at the many things his father lived through before he finally succumbed to cancer, including several health-related close calls.
"It reinforced my idea that that he was the strongest man on the planet," he said. "Knowing what my father went through with Vietnam, boarding schools, the raping of his culture. My whole life I have always said, this is a strong man."
Northrup maintained his sense of humor until his final days, Matthew said. Northrup told the News Tribune in mid-July that he was feeling well, and had no pain.
"I have applied for a medical (marijuana) card," he said. "Ironic, eh? For better than 50 years the state was trying to lock me up for using, and now they'll be mailing it to me."
A visitation for Northrup will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Sawyer Community Center, with a traditional Anishinaabe funeral at the center at 10 a.m. Friday. A traditional fire was lit Monday night soon after Northrup died at his home, 1244 Northrup Road. It will stay lit through Friday, following the Ojibwe belief that Northrup, in death, is completing a four-day journey to a western land. The family welcomes visitors to the fire.