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 bull******* - another name, he says,
for a storyteller.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
by Jim Northrup
the war, but was having
trouble surviving the peace
couldn't sleep more than two hours
was scared to be without a gun
guilt and remorse
wanted to stay drunk all the time
1966 and the VA said
Vietnam wasn't a war
They couldn't help but did give me a copy of the Yellow
Picked a shrink off the list
50 bucks an hour
I was making 125 a week
We spent six sessions establishing rapport
I heard about his military life,
his homosexuality, his fights with his mother
and anything else he wanted to talk about
At this rate, we would have gotten to me in 1999
Gave up on that shrink
couldn't afford him and he wasn't doing me any good
Six weeks later, my shrink killed himself
Great, not only guilt about the war but new guilt about
my dead shrink
If only I had a better job
I could have kept on seeing him
I thought we were making real progress
Maybe in another six sessions
I could have helped him
I realized then that surviving the peace was up to me
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.
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
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.'
of them got it right away," he said. "I talked about Indian
boarding schools and Vietnam and some Indian stuff after that."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
left Green Bay and my family was waiting. My wife said, 'Jim - turn
off the charisma machine.'"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."