One night in Vietnam, about 40 years ago, Jim Northrup got a glimpse of the good things waiting for him on the other side that war.
“It was a really bright night, there was a big moon, and guys were writing letters back home, reading magazines … . This car magazine came by me and there it was, the 1964 Corvette, and I said, ‘One of these days …’ I just had to wait 37 years for my wife to win it in the casino.”
Northrup, who lives on the Fond du Lac reservation in Carleton, is a familiar sight in that car, as he takes his miniature dachshunds, Buster Brown Shoes and Oscar Meyer Weiner Dog, for their nightly drive. When he heads into Duluth, though, he says he gets three looks. “The first look says, ‘Oh, what a beautiful car!’ Then they see me driving it. ‘What’s he doing with that car?’ Then the next one says, ‘Oh, it must be a casino Indian.’”
A fourth look, however, might say, “Oh, that’s Jim Northrup.” The 70-year-old Anishinaabe writer and Vietnam War veteran is pretty much a Northland fixture, and his picture has appeared with his syndicated column “The Fond du Lac Follies” (it runs in “The Circle,” “The Native American Press,” “News from Indian Country,” and “Pine Journal”) for nearly 25 years. He’s traveled widely across the U.S. and beyond, talking about his writing and the native way of life; he’s been the subject of a film documentary, “Jim Northrup: With Reservations”; and his book “Walking the Rez Road” has just been reissued in an expanded 20th anniversary edition by Fulcrum Books.
Main character is back from Vietnam
“I think it’s aged pretty well,” he says, and it has. In the book, Northrup’s main character (and admitted alter-ego of sorts) Luke Warmwater has come home from Vietnam and is trying to make sense of a world that is the mostly same although he has been vastly changed by war. Sounds pretty contemporary, doesn’t it? Except that PTSD hadn’t been named or treated yet, and Vietnam veterans were shunned. Warmwater eventually seeks help for his PTSD, and puts himself together again in part by pursuing traditional activities that sustained his family for generations — even though his connection to the Ojibwe language and ways had been damaged by years spent in forced assimilation boarding school program.
When Northrup came back to the reservation, he lived for several years in a teepee on the side of a lake, where he began to write stories and poems about his experiences. Today, he’s glad to see veterans come home to a stronger support system and a more understanding society.
“When people see me out wearing my vet regalia, they say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ And I think, where were you 40 years ago? Then I look again and realize they weren’t even born yet,” he says. Times have changed: At a recent celebration for Vietnam veterans, Northrup read poems about his war experiences and got a standing ovation from 45,000 people.
Edition includes ‘Shinnob Jeb’
The new edition of “Walking the Rez Road” includes the Luke Warmwater stories, an assortment of poems (with translations in the Ojibwe language), and his play, “Shinnob Jeb,” a game show parody in which an adopted-out Anishinaabe man from Edina competes against a panel of reservation Indians.
Al: For one dollar, how did you know he was new at the sugar bush?
John: He was tapping a basswood tree.
Al: Eya’ your pick.
John: Sugar bush for two.
Al: In that category, how did you know he was new at the sugar bush?
John: He kept looking for a bush made of sugar?
Al: Eya’, pick again.
John: Sugar bush for three, please.
Al: For three bucks, how did you know he was new at the sugar bush?
John: He kept saying, “Why do you do this? You can buy syrup at the store.”
Al: How do you know these things? I thought you were from Edina and worked at Control Data.
John: I am from Edina, but I went to the sugar bush for the first time this year, and I made all those mistakes.
Northrup is adept at handling painful subjects, including war, poverty, adoption, alcohol abuse, in large part because of his wry sense of humor. His attitude is, we may as well laugh about it, or find the funny in there somewhere. That attitude has carried him through a lot of touchy situations as he writes fearlessly about hot-button topics like casino management, tribal politics, U.S. foreign policy, and nuclear waste disposal on Indian lands for his Follies column. A few of Northrup’s best — or perhaps we should say most-discussed — columns are included in the new edition.
More Warmwater stories coming
The writer is working on a set of stories that follow Luke Warmwater later in life. But it’s taking a while — in addition to reporters interrupting him, relatives stop by often, and each summer Northrup and his wife, Patricia, run a language camp that seems to attract twice as many people as the year before (1,254 this year). Plus, every season there is work to be done: hunting, fishing, tapping syrup, harvesting wild rice.
“We’re getting ready for that now. I think there’s something in that wild rice that I need. Countless generations have lived on it, so on a way-down molecular level, I need to function well. Same with deer, fish, moose. There’s something in there that I need.”
He takes his grandchildren out with him, in the woods and at readings, where his 13-year-old grandson handles the book-selling money. “Somebody took the time to teach me, so I teach them, so that they know how when it’s their turn.”