Jim Northrup: storyteller, author, playwright, poet, family man, veteran, AnishinaabeAuthor, storyteller, poet and playwright Jim Northrup recites the introduction in his rich deep voice, slowly and confidently. He says the same words each time he speaks at a public forum. In his voice is an unspoken invitation, kindly yet wryly inviting the listener to join with him as he talks about his experiences as an American Indian and a Vietnam veteran.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
“Boozhoo niiji bimadiziig
Hello my fellow human beings.
Hello my fellow Indians
Bangii etago ninitaa Ojibwem idash
I only know a little Ojibwe but
Ninga gagwe abajitoon ji Ojibwemoyaan
I’ll try speaking Ojibwe.
Jim Northrup niin indizhinikaaz Zhaaganashimong
My name in the English language is Jim Northrup
Chibenesi indigoo Ojibwemong
I am called Chibenesi in Ojibwe.
Makwaa niin nindoodem
My clan is bear.
Nagaajiwanong ishkoniganing niin indoonjibaa
I am from the Fond du Lac Reservation
I live in Sawyer.
Umpa O wasteween niwiw Bwaanimong
My wife’s name is Beautiful Daybreak Woman in the Dakota language.
Ishkigamizigan o apii ningi-dibishkaa
I was born in the sap boiling moon (April)
Ingodwaasimidana ashi niizhwaswi endasho biboonigiz
I am 67 winters old.”
Author, storyteller, poet and playwright Jim Northrup recites the introduction in his rich deep voice, slowly and confidently. He says the same words each time he speaks at a public forum. In his voice is an unspoken invitation, kindly yet wryly inviting the listener to join with him as he talks about his experiences as an American Indian and a Vietnam veteran.
This time the stage is his kitchen table.
“Just doing [the introduction] calms me down and I don’t have stage fright,” Northrup said.
To get an idea of how many places Northrup has shared his stories and poems, a person can either do an Internet search or, better yet, walk into his first-floor bathroom.
The walls are covered with posters from as far away as Norway and Scotland, proclaiming Northrup’s appearances, mixed in with letters and lots of awards: 2001 Writer of the Year from Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers; Best Column award from “News from Indian Country” and the 1994 Minnesota Book Awards for Personal Voices, among others.
It’s hard to imagine Northrup with stage fright. He seems so comfortable in his own skin.
It wasn’t always that way.
As a child, from the age of 6 to 10 years old, Northrup was sent to a federal boarding school for American Indian children in Pipestone, in southwestern Minnesota. The school was part of a movement to assimilate American Indian children into mainstream American culture. They could only speak English, and were forced to dress and behave like white Americans.
It wasn’t a fun place….
A first grader
A federal boarding school
Said anin* to the
first grown up
Got an icy blue-eyed stare
Got a beating from a
second grader for crying
about the stare
Couldn’t tell ma or dad
Both were 300 miles away
Couldn’t write, didn’t know how
Couldn’t mail, didn’t know how
Runaway, got caught
Got an icy blue stare
and a beating
Got another beating
from a second grader
for crying about
the blue-eyed beating
Toughed it out
(* anin means hello in Ojibwe. So does boozhoo.)
“Then that social experiment was shut down,” Northrup said, only a trace of bitterness in his voice.
From fifth through seventh grades Northrup attended public school in Minneapolis, then he was sent to a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school, run by folks who were “just right of hard-shell Baptists,” according to Northrup. He lasted three years there, before an “incident,” which he’s happy to talk about, but it’s a long story.
After school, Northrup joined the United States
“I had a choice between the reform school path or the military,” he said. “My grandfather served in World War I, my uncles in World War II. My cousins were in Korea. I was a natural for the military.”
Northrup was a U.S. Marine for five years and nine days. The last 13 months were spent on a tour of duty in Vietnam, something that appears to have shaped his life almost as much as being born Anishinaabeg did.
“People shot at me and I shot at them,” he said. “People tried to blow me up, and I tried to blow them up. So I have a hearing loss.”
It was really crazy at times
Once, we got caught out in the
middle of a rice paddy.
The bad guys started shooting at us
I was close to the front of the formation
and got into the tree line quick
They couldn’t see me.
When I leaned over to catch my breath
I heard the snick-snick Bang sound
of someone firing a bolt action rifle
shooting at the Marines still out in the rice paddy
I could tell where he was from the sound of his rifle
I fired a three round burst at the noise
That a**hole turned and fired at me
I saw the muzzle flash, heard the bullet
snapping by at the same time.
I fired another three round burst at I moved closer.
Then, through a little opening in the brush
I could see what looked like a pile of rags, bloody rags
I went closer and gave him one in the head to make sure
We used to do that all the time...one in the head to make sure
When my 7.62 mm bullet hit, it knocked his hat off
when his hat came off
All this hair come spilling out
It was a woman
She had hair like my Gramma’s
Northrup had post traumatic stress syndrome before PTSD had a name.
“I came back to the Rez in ’76 or ’77. I’d been away about 10 years,” he said. “In retrospect, I think I didn’t want to bring the stink of war back
The Vietnam veteran set up home in a teepee on the north side of Perch Lake, “a suburb of Sawyer,” he calls it, where he lived off and on for six years.
He started writing when he was living by the lake. No electricity, but he did have a phone. (A landline telephone, but that’s a story for another time.)
“People who were really serious about visiting me would walk out from the road,” he said. “We’d entertain ourselves by telling stories, sitting around the fire. Well, one time I was making notes about a story I wanted to tell the next time and I realized this is not too different from a story you would read in a book. So I invented a character called Luke Warmwater, and had the things happen to him.”
Northrup’s award-winning book, “Walking the Rez Road,” was born out of the union of his Luke Warmwater stories and poetry.
Today, Northrup has been writing for a living for at least three decades. His syndicated column, “Fond du Lac Follies,” is distributed every month in “The Circle,” “The Native American Press” and “News from Indian Country,” all national American Indian newspapers. (His column does not appear locally in the Fond du Lac newspaper, however.) He’s written and published two books – “Walking the Rez Road” and “Rez Road Follies, Canoes, Casinos, Computers and Birch Bark Baskets,” and he’s been a part of a number of anthologies. Plays include “Rez Road 2000” and “Shinnob Jep,” performed most recently at the Black Bear Casino. In addition to appearing numerous films, Northrup starred in the 1997 award-winning video “Jim Northrup: With Reservations.”
“[That] was filmed at least eight cars ago, makes me look so young,” Northrup said about the video, which depicts a year of Northrup’s traditional lifestyle with his wife, Pat (between them they have eight children, mostly grown now): collecting wild rice, making syrup and birchwood baskets, hunting moose and more.
Despite being sent away, despite Vietnam, Northrup has spent much of his life keeping the Ojibwe traditions and language alive.
He remembers coming home from boarding school and getting teased by his elders for making silly mistakes in Ojibwe.
“Whose fault was that?” he said, confirming that it wasn’t only the federal government that thought teaching him to be part of the dominant culture would be beneficial.
In the end, however, the schools couldn’t take away his identity as an Anishinaabe – aka Ojibwe, Chippewa or, as he says in Rez slang, “Shinnob.”
“I was born on the Rez. I live on the Rez. I’ll probably die on the Rez,” Northrup said. “There’s a lot that happened in between, but it was just details.”
Editor’s note: Northrup is currently working on two books: one a collection of his “Fond du Lac Follies” columns, the other a full-length chapter book featuring Luke Warmwater.
To find more about Northrup, visit www.nativewiki.org/Jim_Northrup.