For more than 21 years, Jim Northrup has been one of the premier literary voices of the American Indian and the Midwest writers’ communities. He is a playwright, a fiction writer, a newspaper columnist and teacher, but he calls himself a bullshitter - another name, he says, for a storyteller.
Northrup, 67, is best known by many as a poet and for his award winning syndicated column Fond du Lac Follies, published monthly in The Circle, The Native American Press, News From Indian Country, and the Daily Planet. His books include Walking the Rez Road, a collection of short stories featuring Viet Nam veteran Luke Warmwater as the main character, and Rez Road Follies.
His writing is filled with bone-dry and often pointed humor. Whether about his time in Vietnam, his run-ins with civil authorities to uphold treaty rights, his conflicts with tribal governments or his experiences with non-Indians who assume that he lives in a tipi, Northrup has a certain point of view, written to inflict a bit of discomfort to the comfortable reader.
He is older and a bit heavier than in the photos that appear on his book jacket and website. His wiry hair is now mostly gray, hidden by his “Marine Veteran” cap which he keep on, even indoors. His varsity-style jacket, which he sheds when he comes inside says in large letters, “Marines. Vietnam Vet,” along with the seal of the Fond du Lac Reservation. He still wears his glasses, and the wry smile is still the same.
“I once showed a white couple around the Reservation,” he relates. “I showed them the pharmacy, the casino and the community college. When we came back they asked, ‘Where are the real Indians?’ I think they wanted to borrow some of my credibility.”
by Jim Northrup
Survived the war, but was having
Other stories though, are gentler. He shares tales about collecting and boiling maple sap, gathering wild rice and passing on tribal traditions to the younger generations of his tribe.
“I’m a Midwest celebrity,” Northrup says, but his influence extends far from his home of the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation in northeastern Minnesota. Since the 1980s, his speaking and teaching appearances has taken him to Taos Film Festival and an interview at BBC-Scotland.
One of those gigs brought him to Stillwater High School where, on a sunny mid-October morning he sat down to share stories of his life and that of his Anishinaabe family with an assembly of high school juniors. Humor is one way for him to deal with his post-traumatic stress disorder and memories of the horrors of war and of injustices he encounters.
“I told the kids (at the high school) dirty jokes,” Northrup said, including, ‘What’s the difference between a girlfriend and a wife? About 45 pounds. What is the difference between a boyfriend and a husband? About 45 minutes.’
“Some of them got it right away,” he said. “I talked about Indian boarding schools and Vietnam and some Indian stuff after that.”
The week before, he was at the University of Michigan at Anne Arbor to speak with students about Indian history and the Ojibwa language and next month, he’s scheduled for an appearance at Northeast Tennessee State University.
Northrup’s first experience with the non-Indian world, away from his extended family on the Fond du Lac Reservation, was at a boarding school for Indians in Pipestone, Minnesota, where he was sent when he was six years old. Beatings, usually by bigger and older students, were a daily occurrence.
To avoid the violence, he moved to a Christian boarding school in Hot Springs, S.D., but “the religion didn’t stick,” he said. At the school though, he gained a knowledge of formal English and, he said, learned that it was possible for an Anishinaabe to become a writer. The price he paid for that education was forgetting his first language, his native Ojibwemowin.
Soon after graduating high school, Northrup joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam as part of the India Company, 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. Being a soldier, he said, was a family tradition.
Once he came home, his experiences in Vietnam left him adrift. He tried seeing a psychiatrist (the VA didn’t provide them) but quit when it didn’t help. Northrup didn’t settle down for nearly 10 years after returning from the war, and even today, war is still part of his life.
His celebrated poem, “Shrinking Away,” is used by Veteran’s Administration PSTD support groups to encourage discussion. It was one of the poems he read at a Wisconsin salute to Vietnam veterans at Landau Field. “I got a standing ovation from 40 thousand people,” he said. “After it was over, people were streaming out. I saw flashes – people taking photos. They were shaking my hand. Women were hugging me. It was great.”
“I left Green Bay and my family was waiting. My wife said, ‘Jim – turn off the charisma machine.'”
Northrup has spent years regaining his first language and is now fluent. He’ll greet you in Ojibwemowin – “Boozhoo.” – and includes Ojibwemowin translations in his books. “Language revitalization is the most important thing that the American Indians can do. It gives us a stronger sense of identity,” he said.
His own sense of identity is strong. “I am Anishinaabe, then maybe an American Indian, as identified in the U.S. Census. A Native American is anyone born in America,” he said. Northrup said he is working on his next book, “a collection of three long short stories.” The first story is about a man hired as deputy sheriff on a reservation a year after returning home from Vietnam.
The second story takes his character to Waukegan, Illinois when he joins the police force to fight racism, crime and (he emphasizes) corruption. In the third, he works as an investigator for a public defender helping defend what he sees as the sewer of humanity. “It’s 51 percent me and 49 percent Anishinaabe,” Northrup said.
When not traveling, Northrup prefers the traditional life on the reservation with his wife of 30-plus years, Patricia. He jokes that theirs is a mixed marriage-she’s Dakota. He lives near dozens to whom he is related by blood or marriage-children, cousins, nephews and nieces, uncles and aunts-and to people who are as close as kin.
But even his observations on family come with another message for his readers. “Going without family is like going to the moon without a way back,” he said. “Going without family is like going to the Sahara without a canteen. Going without family is like going into Iraq or Afghanistan without an exit strategy.”