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FROM THE EDITOR: What the world needs is more voices like Jim Northrup's

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Minnesota and the world lost a brave and funny voice this week when Jim Northrup — writer/storyteller and unofficial Fond du Lac ambassador — passed away.

Northrup, who worked “for more than a year and less than two” at the reservation newspaper, was a journalist, a poet, a playwright and an author as well as a tribal member devoted to preserving the traditions of the Anishinaabe people. He was also a Marine, who almost invaded Cuba and who spent two years fighting in Vietnam.

His poetry was simple, beautifully written and often a gut punch, whether he wrote about being torn away from his family and sent away to Indian boarding school where they tried to “take the Indian out” of him, or tracking down and killing a sniper, before knocking off the North Vietnamese soldier’s helmet and discovering she was a woman, with long dark hair like his grandmother’s, the subject of another poem.

His columns and stories were pointed, but also very funny. In person, he told jokes about nearly everything, including religion and some truly horrific memories of Vietnam.

“Sometimes things are so bad that all you can do is make a joke about it,” he said, after a particularly terrible joke earlier this year.

I thought of Jim when my pastor gave a sermon last year on “the role of the fool in society.”

By fool, Pastor Bruce meant the court jesters of old, and the comedians and humorists of today.

It was their job, he said, to tell the truth to the king, but do it in a way that wouldn’t get their heads chopped off in the short term, but might provoke thought and even change in the long term.

Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show,” was the example my pastor used at the time of a modern “fool.”

Like Stewart, Jim Northrup also used his writing and performance skills and his humor to make people think, and to show injustice. He wasn’t afraid to speak the truth, or argue with those in positions of power, but he often did it with such panache, like the time he reclaimed a basket from a governor who had never sent payment, or made a point about people putting money over human dignity by dumping out $200 in coins.

During an Indian taco fundraiser earlier this year, fellow Marine Jim Best said when he heard Jim Northrup recite a poem about the war or read his books, he heard “somebody telling the truth.”

“Sometimes that’s the scariest part,” said Best, commander of the Disabled American Vets for central Minnesota. “Most people don’t want to hear it. They’re afraid of the truth.”

While Jim Northrup’s voice was unique, we look forward to hearing other brave, thoughtful and funny voices, telling the truth to anyone willing to listen.

~ Jana Peterson