Jim Northrup: Veteran, Wordsmith, Language Preserver
Award-winning writer Jim Northrup, Ojibwe, is not just a storyteller. Along with his wife, Patricia, Dakota, he is also known as a language warrior for reviving Ojibwe. And he keeps alive such traditions as sugarbush, the tapping of maple trees for sap, and making birch-bark baskets.
Born on the Fond du Lac Reservation in northern Minnesota, Northrup was one of 12 children. He attended boarding schools in Minnesota and South Dakota and did a stint in reform school—charged with “aggravated buffoonery with intent to mope,” as he put it—before graduating high school in Carlton, Minnesota. He joined the U.S. Marines and served for five years, including in Vietnam.
Settling in Sawyer, Minnesota, he lived a mile off the road in a $600 tipi from a catalogue. “I liked the solitude of it. Quiet.” During the evenings Northrup, with his friends and family, told stories around the fire. His tales had them “falling off the log, laughing” and begging for more, he said.
At one point he realized that his tale of Luke Warmwater looked a lot like stories he had read, and he began publishing. His poetry and prose have appeared in many forms, including several books, and a column, the “Fond du Lac Follies.” He has been mentored by such well-known Anishinaabe writers as Gerald Vizenor and Louise Erdrich and was the subject of a documentary that won numerous awards, Jim Northrup: With Reservations.
He has eight children, “someplace between 15 and 20” grandchildren and a great-grandchild. He lives with Patricia near Sawyer, among their children and his siblings. A collection of Northrup’s columns, Anishinaabe Syndicated: A View from the Rez, has just come out from the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Read a review and an excerpt. Meanwhile, Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with the author himself at home.
ICTMN: Why choose the Marines?
Northrup: I’d watched a lot of John Wayne movies! If you have to serve, you might as well serve with the best. There was already a strong history of Indians in the Marines (with the code talkers). It was an experience that I excelled at. I served five years and nine days.
How did you come to writing?
My grandfather was a writer. His work is in the Duluth library historical section. It’s a Romeo and Juliet type of story with the Chippewa and Sioux. Just to know that he was doing it back then, when they were still shooting us for our feathers, I thought, Hell, I could do it too.
How do you decide whether to use poetry or prose for a story?
I tell it. I sit one of my relatives down and say, “I want to tell this story.” Then I write it … and do revising and reworking and revising, then I abandon it. Later I read it out loud. My ear is a better editor than my eye.
Do you keep to tradition?
I live my life with the seasons. This time of year I’m preparing for sugarbush, making maple taps. I like doing it as my grandparents and parents did, to honor them. When I was away at school my grandmother would send me a sugar cake every month. One taste would connect me with what was here.
The [columns] from 2001 to now are edited and looking for a home. I’m finishing a book with Luke Warmwater as deputy sheriff and public defender. I’m not calling it a novel, it’s three long short stories. I’m on Facebook and have 2,024 friends. I’m kind of a Facebook whore; anybody who wants to be friends, I’ll say sure.
You’ve traveled a lot. As an Ojibwe, how are you received?
If I go to Chicago, I’m kind of exotic. If I go to D.C., I’m a national treasure. In Europe, I’m a representation of all American Indians. Being Anishinaabe, it’s as though I give them a license to ask anything. There have been so many dumb questions. I think one of my favorites was a woman who pushed her way to the front after a talk. “Can I ask you a question?” she said. I told her okay. “How do you bathe?” So I told her, “First I wash down as far as possible and then I wash up as far as possible. And then I wash possible.”